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Suman Billa : Recovery requires strong and collective global leadership

#ReviveRebuild | Today’s Traveller initiative “Revive and Rebuild the Travel and Tourism industry” invites Suman Billa, Director – Technical Cooperation & Silk Road, United Nations World Tourism Organization (UNWTO) to share insights on new challenges in the wake of the second Covid wave and mapping a strategic way forward …

Suman Billa, Director - Technical Cooperation and Silk Road, United Nations World Tourism Organization
 Suman Billa, Director – Technical Cooperation and Silk Road, United Nations World Tourism Organization

Today’s Traveller: How do you assess the current situation from a Travel and Tourism perspective?

Suman Billa: The Travel and Tourism sectors are interestingly poised at this stage. Travel restrictions around the globe have not changed much since March with 32% of the countries in complete closure, 34% practising partial closures, 32% allowing travel subject to testing and quarantine and only 2% have lifted all restrictions to travel.

But the scenario is also unfolding with a lot of positivity. Several countries around the world have started vaccination programs in real earnest and the results from the major source markets are promising.

The US has vaccinated a majority of its population and the EU is slow but is scheduled to vaccinate its citizens by September. Several other countries which are strong tourism destinations or aviation hubs like Singapore and those in the GCC region have also done extremely well so far.

On the other hand, the discussion around vaccine passports has started yielding tangible results with some sort of coordinated travel agreements coming to fruition this month. We also see a positive trend of countries who have vaccinated the bulk of their population like the UK easing up on travel restrictions and their citizens being welcomed in other countries like Spain without the mandatory diagnostic tests. If this trajectory continues to hold, we are likely to see a robust rebound by the last quarter of this year.

However, there are also causes for concern. We have seen the mutations of the virus in the recent past which have severely impacted countries like UK, Brazil, South Africa and India. It is likely that these variants would spread to other countries, and we will see further mutations of the virus which can pose a challenge to unvaccinated populations.

There is also concern about the level of efficacy of the vaccines against a fast-mutating virus. If we see a resurgence of the virus, it may impact the pace of recovery. The pace of vaccination will also determine the ability of the countries to receive international tourists. We also face the prospect of a ‘have’ and ‘have not’ divide that can impact the ability of citizens of Least Developed Countries to travel if the pace of vaccination and integration into the global health travel framework is slow.

Today’s Traveller: Were you prepared for a second wave scenario and the likelihood of a further setback?

Suman Billa: The second wave was always a possibility but the ferocity with which affected India was unexpected. We need to be prepared for further onslaughts from the virus and its mutations. As the saying goes, “hope for the best but prepare for the worst”. The consequences of not being prepared with a Plan B and Plan C can be fatal for businesses.

Today’s Traveller: What new challenges are likely to take shape?

Suman Billa: The pandemic has challenged the Travel and Tourism sector like never before. The longer it takes to recover, the more difficult it would be for businesses to sustain. Most businesses have by this time gone into a state of hibernation since there has been no real commercial activity for over a year now. As the situation improves, these businesses would face the challenge of finding liquidity, requisite talent and starting afresh from the ground up.

The Travel and Tourism sector is likely to undergo far-reaching changes with a greater focus on sustainability and responsible travel. Technology has already played a catalyzing role in the pandemic so far and its impact would be further accelerated.

Those who are able to stay ahead of the curve and crest the changing circumstances will emerge stronger and those who do not adapt to the changing rules of the game face extinction.

Today’s Traveller: The way forward with strategies to rebuild the travel and tourism industry.

Suman Billa: Recovery from the present situation requires strong and collective global leadership. To optimize travel and tourism, we need to look beyond the bilateral agreements like travel bubbles, etc. and create a strong and robust global framework with clear criteria for travel backed by efficient tools like digital vaccine passports to make travel hassle-free. We would also need to make sure that this arrangement is as equitable as it can be so as to not alienate any countries from benefiting from the recovery of the sector.

National Governments should also create the conditions to enable travel like effective hygiene and safety protocols, access to quality health care in the event of any visitor falling ill etc.

National Governments should also take an entrepreneurial position to support their industry for revival by enabling access to credit, supporting them in reaching out to key markets aggressively etc. so as to emerge as winners in a changed world.

Read More: #ReviveRebuild

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