Destinations prepare for return of tourists
Stefan Sack, a German citizen living and working in Shenzhen, Guangdong province, usually spends the summer vacation making several excursions in Europe with his family.
However, this will not be possible this year due to the COVID-19 pandemic, even though many European countries have started to ease containment measures to enable the tourism industry to recover.
“I am not planning to go back to Europe this summer, not only because of the coronavirus situation there. I also have concerns about travel restrictions imposed in different countries,” said Sack, general manager of a factory employing 2,500 workers.
“These restrictions and social distancing recommendations would also mean that the holiday would be unlike those we had before the emergence of COVID-19.”
Eduardo Santander, executive director of the European Travel Commission, a group of tourism associations located across the continent, said: “The COVID-19 outbreak and resulting lockdown measures have had a severe impact on tourism in Europe. If tourism businesses－which are now only surviving thanks to state aid－manage to resume activity in July and August, we might be able to get back on our feet.”
Thierry Breton, the European Union’s internal market and services commissioner, said tourism is a vital part of the European economy. The tourism “ecosystem”, which comprises nearly 3 million businesses－90 percent of them small and medium-sized enterprises－generates between 10 percent and 11 percent of the trading bloc’s GDP. It also creates 27 million direct and indirect jobs, which account for 12 percent of employment in the EU.
Breton estimates that hotels and restaurants across the continent will see year-on-year revenue losses of 50 percent, income for tour operators and travel agencies will fall by 70 percent, while earnings for cruise operators and airlines will decline by 90 percent.
The European Commission recently announced guidelines for tourist destinations to reopen, including ideas such as a booking system for meals and use of swimming pools. However, it is up to individual countries to make their own decisions.
Greece, where tourism is a traditional pillar of the economy, started the summer tourism season on June 15. Visitors with positive health data arriving by air from 29 countries, including China, can now enter the country in Athens and Thessaloniki. As of Wednesday, international arrivals will be allowed at all Greek airports.
Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis said: “We are opening up to visitors, but we are doing so with safety as our utmost priority. We have worked very hard to ensure our guests will be safe and that they stay healthy.”
Italy and Spain are also desperate for summer arrivals. Italy cautiously reopened its borders on June 2, while Spain opened its frontiers to all EU countries except Portugal, Schengen Area member states outside the bloc and the United Kingdom, on June 21.
On June 16, Austria opened its borders to citizens from European countries except Spain, Portugal, Sweden and the UK, meaning that visitors from 31 countries will no longer have to undergo a two-week quarantine period.
This summer, Claudia Vernotti, director of ChinaEU, a business-led association in Brussels, Belgium, plans first-time visits to some UNESCO sites in Italy, prioritizing those in less-crowded areas.
She said that in the coming months tourism in general will largely be domestic or involve visitors from neighboring countries, as many people may not feel confident about taking trains or planes for long-distance travel. They may also be worried about family finances.
She said that with such measures being enforced by hotels, guesthouses, restaurants and transportation services, the summer tourism season could be saved.
Meanwhile, discussions have been held in Europe about creating special tourist corridors, with preferential routes connecting countries with similar health situations.
“I believe that European nations should not discriminate among tourists based on their country of origin and that the reopening of cross-border travel can be facilitated instead by creating pan-European standards for safety,” Vernotti said.
Santander, from the European Travel Commission, said that although major EU destinations have indicated that they plan to reopen to European arrivals in the coming months, there is still a fragmented picture, with nearly every country setting its own rules and schedules.
It is also still unclear when international travel can restart and European destinations will see arrivals from major overseas markets such as China, he said.
China is a key source of tourists to Europe, but the pandemic has severely affected demand in the country for outbound travel.
The United States, another important source of tourists, has become a new epicenter for the virus. Iceland and Croatia, in particular, have felt the effect of travel restrictions, with arrivals from the US falling by 45.8 percent and 58.5 percent, respectively, in the first quarter, the report said.
Travel within Europe could go some way to reviving the tourism industry this year, rescuing at least part of the summer season and helping struggling businesses recover, Santander said. “Our latest report shows that domestic tourism is predicted to be significantly less affected than international travel, with a 23 percent decline expected in 2020 for Europe as a whole,” he said.
But he added that while the industry is expected to start recovering early next year, it will take at least another two years for the global tourism economy to return to levels seen last year, given the combined health and economic impacts of the pandemic.
He said that for European travelers to plan their summer vacations, a well-coordinated approach is needed urgently throughout the continent to re-establish effective operations and rebuild confidence.
European destinations should create and abide by common standards for the ‘new normal’ so that people could feel assured about traveling again, he said.
He Yun, an assistant professor at the School of Public Administration at Hunan University in Changsha, said a tourism recovery would affect other industries.
“For example, in countries such as Italy, international tourists are the main driver for sales of luxury items, which form a big chunk of its economy. If they cannot kick-start the tourism industry, then they cannot kickstart many other industries,” she said.
Many tourists don’t travel merely for sightseeing－they also go to bars, restaurants, concerts and shopping malls, she said. So, these places being fully open in European destinations when the summer tourism season starts will also make a difference for visitors.
Xu Xiaolei, chief brand officer for China Youth Travel Service, whose outbound tourism business has stagnated this year, said that while the world is still fighting the pandemic, it will be difficult for any country to attract international arrivals.
“To attract global visitors, three requirements need to be met: successfully controlling the virus; restoring international transportation links; and making tourists feel it is safe to visit destinations,” he said.
Santander said the pandemic has caused far more disruption than emergencies such as the 2008 global financial crisis. However, it has also provided “breathing space” to enable the industry to become more sustainable, more innovative, quality-driven and of equal benefit to travelers, local communities and economies, and the environment.
“This crisis creates a downturn, but also an opportunity. We have the chance to think carefully about what kind of future we want for European tourism and what directions and measures are needed to get us there,” he said.
“We should use this opportunity to create a more resilient and sustainable ‘destination Europe’ that is better for our communities and our visitors.”
Xinhua and agencies contributed to this story.
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