Special Report: Travel sector ‘must not forget’ lessons from the pandemic

Industry resilience can’t be taken for granted, warns UN Tourism. Ian Taylor reports from the recent Resilience and Innovation Summit in Sarajevo

The travel industry demonstrated its resilience in bouncing back from the Covid-19 pandemic, but continuing growth can’t be taken for granted in the face of climate change.

That is according to Sandra Carvao, UN Tourism director for market intelligence, policies and competitiveness, who warned: “After the economic environment and increasing travel costs, extreme weather events are the most important factor affecting the environment for travel.”

Speaking at an industry Resilience and Innovation Summit in Sarajevo last week, Carvao noted: “International travel reached 89% of its pre-pandemic level in 2023 and 96% of its re-pandemic value. Results this year show we’re 20% above the 2023 level and UN Tourism estimates we’ll end the year 2% above 2019.”

She said: “Growing geopolitical tensions can have an impact on tourism. But climate change leading to extreme weather events is one of the biggest challenges we face.”

Carvao argued the lessons of Covid-19 need to be retained, saying: “We still need to consolidate the learnings from the pandemic. The sector bounced back, but we must not forget.

“We must have the systems in place to react another time – because there will be another time.”

Jamaica tourism minister Edmund Bartlett told the summit: “We are perhaps the most resilient of industries, but also the most vulnerable to shocks. We need to plan for disruption, mitigate and manage when it happens, and recover quickly.”

Biljana Braithwaite, chief executive of UK-based sustainability consultancy Sustineri Partners, argued investment in tourism would increasingly depend on the sector’s performance on environmental, social and governance (ESG) issues.

She said: “Financing may be cheaper and increasingly may not be available if you’re not engaging with the ESG agenda.

“We’re at a point where it’s a must if you want to attract investment. In the long term, you will be exposing yourself to a lot of risks otherwise.

“Increasingly, investors will refuse to engage with you, insurance companies will be concerned, and guests are becoming increasingly aware.”

As an example, Braithwaite cited Montenegro, saying: “Montenegro branded itself an ecological state 30 years ago. [Yet] so many visitors to Montenegro say, ‘It’s a wonderful destination, it’s such a shame you don’t do more to protect it.’”

She said: “That is a challenge if you want to attract high-value tourism.”

Braithwaite also stressed the need to involve local communities in decisions on tourism development, saying: “Where we see projects fail is where we don’t see early engagement with all stakeholders.”

Dubravko Miholic, advisor to the head of the Croatian National Tourism Board, argued: “We have to stop just counting numbers and focus on resilience. If you have high demand, you must regulate.”

He said Croatia wished to switch from a focus on mass tourism “to quality and people prepared to pay more”, adding: “We start to think like Tuscany, Italy, with no more licences for hotels in regions where we have high demand. But in low seasons we try to extend the season.”

‘Sustainability first, digitalisation second’

Destinations need digital strategies and data to inform decision making but should not see digitisation as an end in itself.

That is according to Marina Ferfolja, head of research and analytics at the Slovenian Tourism Board, who told the summit: “It’s easy to get lost in all the [digital] possibilities. You need a strategy and to ask why are you digitising?”

She noted: “Destination Marketing Organisations are moving from marketing to management and digitisation can help. So, you need to digitise and you need tools. Digitisation allows us to scale and to make better decisions, to create more efficiency.”

But she added: “We’re committed to sustainability in Slovenia and it is key to every decision. For us, it is sustainability first and digital second.”

Saso Krumpak, founder of the Halki destination reservations system in Slovenia, agreed: “Organisations prioritise digitisation sometimes for digitisation’s sake.”

Tomi Ilijas, chief executive of Slovenian technology company Arctur, said: “Without data you can’t make a good decision.” But he added: “You need not just to have the data but to analyse it.”

Carlos Cendra, partner at tourism data analyst Mabrian, acknowledged: “Everybody can get data. [But] you don’t need to know everything. You need something of value.”

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