The outlook for a rebound in travel this year has dimmed after the global pandemic ravaged the industry and hurt tourism-dependent economies, with travelers postponing plans amid vaccine delays and border restrictions.
Tourist destinations from Thailand to Iceland had been hoping Covid-19 vaccines would allow countries to reopen their borders and drive a much-needed recovery in 2021. Now, with vaccine rollouts delayed in some places and new virus strains appearing, it is looking more likely that international travel could be stalled for years.
After declaring that 2020 was the worst year for tourism on record, with one billion fewer international arrivals, the United Nations World Tourism Organization says prospects for a 2021 rebound have worsened. In October, 79% of experts polled by the agency believed a 2021 rebound was possible. Only 50% said they believed that in January, and some 41% didn’t think travel would reach pre-pandemic levels until 2024 or beyond.
James Sowane, who owns a transportation company catering to tourists in Fiji, called a staff meeting earlier this month and told employees to start looking for other jobs. He recently took advantage of a government assistance program and had brought back some laid-off workers, optimistic that vaccines could spark a travel rebound as early as April.
But now Mr. Sowane doesn’t think tourists will return until next year, and he and his wife can’t afford to keep paying wages at their company, Pacific Destinations Fiji. He is borrowing from his bank to keep a few core employees.
“The hardest thing is looking them in the eye,” Mr. Sowane said. “You’re seeing their wife and their children and their husbands because we know them so well.”
Before the pandemic, travel, tourism and related business activity accounted for 10% of the global economy, and one in 10 jobs, according to estimates from the World Travel & Tourism Council. Many places, from Pacific islands to Macau to Greece, were even more reliant on tourism than that.
“People will go out of business,” said Ross Dowling, an honorary professor of tourism at Edith Cowan University in Australia. “They’re not going to survive if they can’t adapt, and no amount of resilience is going to get you through another year.”
As of Feb. 1, air tickets issued for international travel in the coming six months were 15.5% of what they were in 2019, down roughly 2 percentage points compared with Jan. 1, according to travel analytics company ForwardKeys. Scheduled flights this month are down nearly 50% globally compared with February 2019, with some markets down about 90%, according to data company Cirium.
In the U.S., the demand for hotels…
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