The urgency of sustaining millions of livelihoods and the opportunity for transformation

The Policy Brief ‘Tourism and COVID-19” looks at the impacts of the pandemic on the tourism sector, with a focus on livelihoods across all world regions at different development stages, as well as on efforts to advance sustainable development.

Drawing on the latest data from the World Tourism Organization (UNWTO), it sets out the likely impact of the pandemic on global tourism and what this might mean for jobs, livelihoods and economic development.

At the same time, the brief provides an overview of the role tourism plays in advancing the Sustainable Development Goals, including those relating to gender equality, inclusivity and the conservation of natural and cultural heritage. It also features examples of governments supporting tourism jobs, preservation of biodiversity and culture and of measures for the safe restart of tourism. Finally, the brief provides recommendations for policymakers, with a focus on the role of innovation, digitalization, collaboration and sustainability

Unprecedented and unparalleled impact on tourism

Tourism is one of the world’s major economic sectors. It is the third-largest export category (after fuels and chemicals) and in 2019 accounted for 7% of global trade.

In 2019, international tourist arrivals reached 1.5 billion on the back of a decade of unbroken growth. All global regions had experienced solid growth to the start of 2020. Around another 9 billion people travelled in their countries.

Globally, tourism supports one in 10 jobs and provides livelihoods for many millions of people in both developing and developed economies. In Europe alone, tourism supports 27 million jobs and millions of businesses. In some Small Island Developing States (SIDS), tourism has accounted for as much as 80% of exports, while it also represents important shares of national economies reflecting its importance across economic development levels – for example Germany (3.9%), France (7.4%), or Spain (11.8%).

Tourism has been one of the sectors hardest hit by the COVID-19 pandemic. The crisis is unprecedented in size and breadth, with all parts of its vast value-chain affected.

Economies and  Livelihoods

In 2020, international tourist arrivals could fall by between 58% and 78%, placing as many as 100 million direct tourism jobs at risk. Small businesses (which shoulder 80% of global tourism) are particularly vulnerable.

Tourist spending could fall by between USD 910 billion-USD 1.2 trillion in 2020.

This massive shock on international and national tourism will have a wider impact and could reduce global GDP in by 1.5%-2.8%.

Also, at most risk are women and youth (15-24), groups with the strongest representation in the sector, and workers in the informal economy.

No nation will be unaffected. Destinations that are most reliant on tourism for jobs and economic growth are likely to be hit hardest: SIDS and Least Developed Countries (LDCs) in every global region are also least prepared to absorb the shock. Global FDI flows are forecast to decrease by up to 40% in 2020. At the same time, developed countries will also be impacted.

Mitigating impacts on nature and culture 

The sudden fall in tourism demand cuts off funding for conservation operations. 7% of world tourism relates to wildlife tourism, a segment growing 3% annually.

This also places jobs at risk in communities around protected habitats. This has led to a rise in poaching, looting and in consumption of bushmeat.

The impact on nations’ natural resources is particularly critical in SIDS and LDCs. In many African destinations, wildlife accounts for up to 80% of visits, and in many SIDS, tourism revenues have also funded marine conservation efforts.

Ninety percent of countries closed World Heritage Sites, with socio-economic consequences for communities reliant on tourism. Furthermore, 90% of museums closed during the crisis, and 13% may never reopen.

Five Priorities for Tourism’s Restart

Mitigate the socio-economic impacts on livelihoods, particularly women’s employment and economic security.

Boost competitiveness and build resilience, including through diversification, with the promotion of domestic and regional tourism where possible, and the facilitation of a conducive business environment for MSMEs.

Advance innovation and the digital transformation of tourism, including the promotion of innovation and investment in digital skills, particularly for workers temporarily without an occupation and for job seekers.

Foster sustainability and green growth to manage the shift towards a resilient, competitive, resource efficient and carbon neutral tourism sector,

Coordination and partnerships to restart and transform the sector towards achieving the SDGs, ensuring tourism’s restart and recovery puts people first and work together to ease and lift travel restrictions in a responsible and coordinated manner.

Moving Ahead Together 

Alongside the above Five Priorities, UNWTO stresses the importance of continued coordination and cooperation at every level.

Emphasizing the guiding principle of “stronger together”, UNWTO’s leadership has warned against the short and long-term consequences of governments taking unilateral decisions, including the potential negative impact on wider recovery efforts and on consumer confidence and trust in international tourism.

UN Department of 

Global Communications