'Worse than 9/11 and the 2008 crash combined': Global tourism takes a hit from Covid-19

With coronavirus travel bans in place around the planet, the tourism industry – worth 10 percent of global GDP – is being hit hard. FRANCE 24 investigates which sectors are most at risk and when a recovery might be on the cards.

Overview of Chambord Castle, the largest of France’s Loire Valley chateaux.
Overview of Chambord Castle, the largest of France’s Loire Valley chateaux. © Domaine de Chambord

Birdsong fills the air, blossoms crown the trees and the sky is an unspoilt blue: It’s a glorious spring day at Chambord Castle, the largest of France’s Loire Valley chateaux. But it’s also eerily empty – this Easter weekend there are no visitors to the UNESCO World Heritage Site, which has been shut down since March 15 to comply with nationwide coronavirus restrictions.

The castle normally welcomes an average of 3,000 paying visitors a day, with those numbers even higher on holidays. Chambord’s director general, Jean d'Haussonville, told FRANCE 24 he’s projecting overall losses of up to 50 percent for 2020. “At the moment we are losing all of our income from tourists, which is 90 percent of the total.”

Beyond the immediate effects, d’Haussonville is also very concerned about the lasting effects of Covid-19. “For the whole of the tourism sector, it's a loss of the international season, because people had already made their travel plans or they’re making them right now. And it’s difficult to see how people abroad are going to want to come to Europe or to travel within Europe this summer. There’s too much uncertainty at the moment.”

Chambord’s director general, Jean d'Haussonville.
Chambord’s director general, Jean d'Haussonville. © Catherine Norris-Trent

That uncertainty is also having a huge impact globally. The pandemic is putting 75 million tourism jobs at immediate risk with 10 million of those in Europe, according to the World Travel and Tourism Council (WTTC), the trade group representing global travel companies. 

“We’ve never seen anything like this”, says WTTC chief executive Gloria Guevera Manzo. “Some are predicting this will be worse than 9/11 and the crash of 2008 combined.”

Although tourism represents 10 percent of global GDP, Guevera Manzo says in reality the impact will be much greater. “For every job in the cruise industry, for example, there are four jobs in ports in 1,000 destinations around the world.”

She warns of a “significant domino effect” with airlines particularly vulnerable. If they collapse, that spells disaster for airports, hotels and business-related tourism all along the chain. The WTTC head says she’s most concerned about small and medium-sized enterprises, particularly in developing countries that rely on tourism to support their economies, for example, the Caribbean islands and African nations such as Kenya or Ethiopia.

So when can the tourism sector hope to see light at the end of the tunnel? “In the next few weeks we will know if the recovery will restart at the end of the summer or beginning of the autumn – it depends on when the spread of the virus will stop,” Guevera Manzo explains. But she warns it will take time; tourists are likely to start travelling domestically before embarking on international holidays.

Recent trends in China, where Covid-19 first appeared, offer some reason for optimism. China is a huge global player in the travel industry, ranking first in the number of international trips as well as in holiday spending. The China Outbound Tourism Research Institute calculates that Chinese tourists made 170 million journeys and spent a massive $277 billion in 2019. 

CEO Wolfgang Georg Arlt told FRANCE 24 that as China lifts domestic travel restrictions, “most hotels, most natural parks are open again”. Arlt said there are already indications that “the Chinese want to travel internationally” and that most have postponed, rather than cancelled, their foreign trips.

“When it will be possible for Chinese tourists to travel again, Europe will see a wave of visitors in the second half of this year,” he predicts, as long as EU countries can reassure them the coronavirus pandemic is under control.



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