Comment: We can’t be caught out by a Covid-like virus again

World Travel & Tourism Council president and chief executive Julia Simpson urges support for the World Health Organisation’s Global Digital Health Certification Network

Sixty years ago, a catchy tune and a whimsical boat ride debuted at the 1964 World’s Fair in New York before moving to Disneyland in 1966. At a time when air travel was still a luxury, the miniature landscapes of ‘It’s a Small World’ offered people a glimpse of the world.

Visitors to the Fair saw the temples of Thailand and the carnivals of Brazil. ‘It’s a Small World’ wasn’t just a boat ride, it was a portal for discovery.

Today, that small world has become a reality. Around four billion people fly every year to experience new places, meet loved ones and do business.

Affordable travel has opened up even the most remote corners of the globe, from trekking through the ancient Inca empire to travelling along the glaciers of Antarctica. Travel is an integral part of the human experience.

Tourism is also critical to prosperity. World Travel & Tourism Council (WTTC) data shows the sector contributes more than US$10 trillion to the global economy each year and creates 330 million jobs, fostering cultural exchange and enhancing our understanding on a scale that could only be imagined in a fairground ride 60 years ago.

The iconic ‘It’s a Small World’ song with its simple yet profound message of harmony reminds me that, despite our differences, we are all part of the human family.

I’ve seen this in my own travels. Visiting new places and meeting new people has shown me that tourism is not just about seeing sights and monuments. It is about understanding different ways of life, appreciating cultures, embracing diversity and celebrating unity.

That is what made the Covid-19 pandemic so disorienting and tragic. Overnight, once vibrant communities gave way to deserted tourist sites, empty airports and shuttered businesses. Our world, so open, was suddenly closed.

As we rebuild, we need to make sure we’re never unprepared again. We need strong public health infrastructure, well-funded scientific research, and a commitment to technology in developing nations.

As World Health Organisation (WHO) director-general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus has said: “Nobody is safe until everybody is safe.”

This week, governments around the world will gather at the World Health Assembly in Geneva. This is our opportunity to create a unified plan – a pandemic treaty – to prioritise global health and make sure we are never again unprepared for a crisis.

Countries must come together to guarantee testing, digital vaccination certificates and a fair distribution of medical resources to keep us moving during the next disaster.

And to ensure health checks are universally aligned, countries should join the WHO’s Global Digital Health Certification Network (GDHCN), allowing seamless verification across borders.

A pandemic treaty and participation in the GDHCN are essential to ensure the bonds between cultures and people are not just a fantasyland attraction, but our reality no matter what threats emerge.

Only then can we have a truly interconnected small world.

Julia Simpson is president and CEO of the World Travel & Tourism Council (WTTC)

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