Experts who see tomorrow

SINGAPORE, 15 January 2021: I get messages all the time from folk who can see tomorrow and far beyond. Another one dropped into my email box this morning. Between the lines, you sense the urgency of a panic-stricken PR director lectured on doing what you are told by a boss who pours all day over negative balance sheets.

You can imagine the dismissive wave; “get on with it. Send the message.” My inbox pings the arrival of the enticing message:  “We are available for interviews… Do you want an outlook for the travel sector in 2021? My boss has the answers.”

I am having my second Expresso of the morning and ponder over this new breed of executives from travel and a host of fringe industries who clearly have the inside track on what baffles the rest of us. Where is travel heading this side of 2025? The webinar frenzy of 2020 spewed out hundreds of experts who have set up their ‘Back to the Future’ circus acts that make Rosy Lee the fortune teller look like an amateur. We are none the wiser.

I hit the delete button. I will take a rain check on the invitation to discover what the future of travel looks like – and when we can expect the rollout of tourism recovery.

It is exactly a year after reporting the first Covid-19 patient outside of China a woman who just happened to be on holiday in Thailand when she fell sick, so I fast rewind to what we and others reported in the early days of 2020. It shows no one had a clue. The three months to recovery stretched to six and then nine before we focused on 2021, possibly believing the incredibly smart virus could also tell the time and planned to leave us alone after the New Year countdown. Yes, we are relying on vaccines to deliver us from evil and having accurate pre-flight testing would be a bonus that might help us kickstart tourism recovery, but the timeline remains clouded in doubts and questions. Even market savvy Qantas said it was reopening bookings this July for a relaunch of international flights in the last quarter of this year, only to be told to shut up.

We hope for clarity soon and a shift in how governments respond to Covid-19 to restore travel, but we shouldn’t underestimate the mess we now find ourselves in thanks to the clutter of ill-advised responses to the Covid-19 pandemic throughout 2020.

A look back through the statistics shows us tourism is now back to 1990 levels.

In a report by Statista “Tourism Back to 1990 Levels as Pandemic Halts Travel” the author, Felix Richter says: “As 2020 drew to a close with severe limitations to travel still in place, the World Tourism Organization (UNWTO) expects 2020 international arrivals to have declined by 70 to 75%. That equates to a decline of around 1 billion international arrivals, bringing the industry back to 1990 levels.

“Since 1980, the number of international arrivals skyrocketed from 277 million to nearly 1.5 billion in 2019. As our chart shows, the two largest crises of the past decades, the SARS epidemic of 2003 and the global financial crisis of 2009, were minor bumps in the road compared to the Covid-19 pandemic.

“Looking ahead, most experts don’t expect a full recovery in 2021, which started with many countries still battling the second wave of the pandemic. According to the UNWTO’s estimates, it will take the industry between 2.5 and 4 years to return to pre-pandemic levels of international tourist arrivals.”

Based on the science and history of data collection for once the UNWTO might have identified a realistic timeline — two and a half to four years for the recovery cycle to begin. Can we live with that? More to the point can we survive?