SARS, five months. 9/11, six months. The 2007-9 economic crisis, eleven months. In the last two decades, the global tourism sector has been seriously impacted by catastrophic events several times and in every case, recovery has been achieved within a year after the sector was hit. This time, however, recovery will take longer, says Saúl Blanco Sosa, Sustainable Tourism Manager at NEPCon:
“Imagine a combination of the SARS epidemic in 2003 and the 2007-9 economic crisis. This is what we are seeing now. In my view, a realistic scenario would be 18 to 24 months of recovery before we see positive numbers again. We are facing a long recovery process ahead of us, but also, a unique opportunity to rebuild tourism, not only stronger, but better,” said Saúl Blanco Sosa.
No other industry has felt the impact of COVID-19 as hard and abruptly as the tourism sector: In the first quarter of 2020 international tourism dropped by 22 percent with 67 million fewer tourists until March and a total loss of export translating into USD 80 billion, according to the United Nations World Tourism Organization (UNWTO). However, the total loss for 2020 will be significantly higher, as UNWTO expect international tourism to drop by a staggering 60-80 percent for the full year.
Sustainability creates loyalty
While many regions are gradually reopening for international travel, others are still in some degree of lockdown. Based in Guatemala, Saúl Blanco Sosa is facing the reality of the latter, together with countries such as Peru, Argentina, Colombia and Costa Rica, among others from Latin America.
“It’s been five months now and in Guatemala we are still with our borders shut and under some form of curfew, and according to the government, this will continue up until October. It’s difficult to survive that long with your borders shut, even if you are a sustainable company. Six months out of business is a lot,” said Saúl Blanco Sosa.
Despite the negative odds, however, only “a handful” of the 90-100 companies currently certified under NEPCon’s Sustainable Tourism Program have been forced to turn the key.
Contrary to general belief, the hotel and lodging sector has a very narrow margin, and unless owners are backed by good planning processes or good standing investment groups; they are particularly sensitive to a sudden drop in visitors, says Saúl Blanco Sosa, who is pointing to several reasons why sustainable tourism companies have shown greater resilience during the pandemic:
“One of the social aspects of our standard requires companies to constantly work towards developing a good working environment that genuinely cares for their workers at all levels - emotionally, legally and in terms of their physical wellbeing,” he says, and continues:
“Companies that are really embracing this aspect of the standard develop a more positive and meaningful relationship with their employees, who are more willingly supporting the ownership and the company in working together to ride out this storm. They go the extra mile because they feel appreciated, but most of all, because they feel part of a project with a good purpose. Legality has been surpassed by reality in some sense. So, there might be labour regulations, unions and other measures to safeguard workers rights, but if you don’t have staff that are willing to work together with the ownership in finding “out of the box solutions”, many companies can´t make it in a crisis like the one COVID-19 has posed on them,” said Saúl Blanco Sosa.
Reimagining tourism management
In an era of mass tourism, mega resorts and cruise liners the size of large villages, there is no doubt taking care of employees is an important parameter for sustainability - but it is not the only one, says Saúl Blanco Sosa:
“We encourage companies to embrace sustainability as the overall philosophy for doing business. That implies being both economically and environmentally responsible and being aware of the social and cultural impacts of their activity. Within this model, there are certain aspects, which I think have benefitted sustainable companies now, but that are the result of efforts made over the last five to ten years. One of them is planning ahead and not simply improvising as things move on. Planning for a sustainable future is the first requirement of our tourism certification standards, and now, it has definitely confirmed to be the basis for building resilience,” said Sául Blanco Sosa.
Sustainability as philosophy
Obviously, there is a limit to how long time even sustainable tourism companies can persist without being able to send out invoices, says Saúl Blanco Sosa Meanwhile, this time also provides an opportunity to change direction for the broader tourism sector
“Now we have the opportunity to start again. Inevitably, we have to, so we might as well work on reinventing the way we understand travel. And when doing this, sustainability has to be at the center,” said Saúl Blanco Sosa, who has maintained his optimism during these challenging times:
“The key is to understand that sustainability must be the philosophy that guides the overall thinking and planning of the entire travel sector, that sustainability is not just caring for the environment or having a social responsibility program; that sustainability is not just another department in the organizational chart. Sustainability is the way of doing things per se.”