The UN warns of the pandemic’s lasting impacts on tourism

In 2019, 1.5 billion people crossed international borders, many with the goal of experiencing different cultures as well as local heritage and creativity. Now, as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, tourism has rapidly declined in most countries, hurting communities who rely on cultural tourism for their livelihoods, leaving cultural and natural World Heritage sites vulnerable to looting and poaching, and weakening access to culture.

With the UN World Tourism Organization (UNWTO) projecting a 60-80% decline in international arrivals for 2020, the UN Secretary-General has published a Policy Brief on the socio-economic impact of the pandemic on tourism, including on the millions of livelihoods it sustains. It highlights the role tourism plays in advancing the Sustainable Development Goals, including its relationship with environmental goals and culture. UNESCO has a rich experience in tourism, particularly as relates to its Culture Conventions, and contributed experiences and statistics to the Report, for example on World Heritage sites, among others.

The Brief notes the urgency of mitigating the impacts of COVID-19 on livelihoods in the tourism industry, especially for women, youth and informal workers, and contains a five-point roadmap for a sustainable recovery of the tourism sector. More broadly, the publication calls for collective action and international cooperation to transform the tourism sector, shifting the industry towards an inclusive and carbon neutral model that harnesses innovation and digitalization while embracing local values and communities.

Tourism represents a large share of national economies in both developed and developing countries. In some Small Island Developing States (SIDS), tourism has accounted for as much as 80% of exports. Prior to the crisis, cultural tourism accounted for nearly 40% of global tourism revenues. Many living heritage practices, such as traditional festivals and gatherings, have been halted or postponed, and with the closure of markets for crafts and other cultural goods, the livelihoods of indigenous women have been particularly impacted. A recent UNESCO report on the impact of COVID-19 on museums found that 90% of the world’s museums were forced to close at the height of the pandemic, and that more than 10% may never reopen. As of 31 August 2020, some 65% of countries have closed or partially closed their World Heritage properties, with immense socio-economic consequences for surrounding communities.

The impact of COVID-19 provides a watershed moment to rethink and transform existing tourism models towards a tourism that is more resilient, inclusive and resource efficient. To further nurture sustainable societies, UNESCO’s Creative Cities Network aims to enhance solidarity and collaboration among cities by sharing valuable information and expertise, including culture and creativity-driven good practices and innovative measures that cities have taken in response to COVID-19. Through this international platform, UNESCO is able to monitor, at the local level and beyond, the impacts of COVID-19 on tourism and many other related sectors, as well as stimulate new approaches and innovative practices that will make tourism sustainable in the post-COVID-19 era.

The future of tourism, including at World Heritage properties around the world, will depend on how we promote innovation in the industry and adapt to new constraints amidst a global pandemic that is already changing the pre-existing tourism model and encouraging communities to think locally and act sustainably.