New divide between the haves and have nots

BANGKOK, 27 September 2021: Today, we celebrate World Tourism Day, possibly mulling over the reassuring words of tourism leaders such as the UNWTO Secretary-General Zurab Pololikashvili.

Yes, we know the human desire to travel and explore is universal, which is why tourism must be open for everyone to enjoy. We have been listening to the messages for more than 18 months.

And yes, we get it. “Tourism brings massive social and economic benefits for everybody and World Tourism Day 2021 highlights the power of Tourism for Inclusive Growth.”

We have heard it so many times we can recite the words that remind us to celebrate this day, because when “tourism grows, the benefits that come will be felt at every level of our broad and diverse sector, from the biggest airline to the smallest family business.”

But after battling the Covid-19 pandemic for more than 18 months, the reality is far from those comforting words. It’s more the delivery of empty twaddle that falls off the lips of people who should know better.

The UNWTO needs to do much more to ensure they champion a revival of tourism that benefits the smallest family business.  We have all witnessed the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic that has ruined countless family-run enterprises. The small homestays and the family-run sightseeing companies will now take years to recover. Many of them will disappear off the face of the earth. That’s the reality of Covid-19 beyond the loss of life and “long Covid” symptoms. Families are left broke and deep in debt.

Tourism has now stumbled into the trap of serving the “haves” and the slogans posted by the low-cost airline giant AirAsia — “now everyone can fly” becomes irrelevant to millions of people who carefully saved their dollars for an annual dream holiday.

On World Tourism Day, the UNWTO secretary-general reaffirms the tired old pledge “as we move forward and work to build a more prosperous and peaceful world through tourism, we will not leave anyone behind.”

But we did leave people behind. It started with the thousands of travellers stranded in destinations unable to book a flight home. Then possibly millions who are still queueing for a refund when airlines offered them Hobson’s choice; a credit voucher for use when Covid-19 retreated.

In reality, it is now very likely that 90% of travellers have been left behind when the casualties are counted. How can would-be travellers afford to pay for expensive quarantines often at both ends of the travel experience? And that excludes the value of your time wasted in a forced hotel stay.  The same applies to PCR tests that are making a few lab and wellness corporations wealthy at the expense of travellers. A weekly test in Thailand sets you back a USD100 per person. That’s USD400 for a family with two teenage children. Then you need to multiply that total by three visits to the lab before the real travel experience can begin.

The travel clock has turned back by almost a century when only the wealthy could afford to travel. The so-called ‘haves’ can live with the restrictions and the test costs. The quarantine is an irritation, but if you can afford a luxury hotel stay, you survive. They show off their travels and expensive lifestyles on Facebook pages, forgetting it could be viewed as lacking respect for the thousands of staff they left behind in Asia, who they paid off with a pittance of compensation.

If travel is for everyone, the UNWTO should be applying much more pressure on its member countries to significantly reduce quarantine and testing costs, at least for fully vaccinated travellers.

What is often forgotten amidst the incessant chatter and the proliferation of soothsayers, webinars, and time-wasting forums is the irreparable damage inflicted on tourism’s family businesses or SMEs. They are broke and unable to recover mainly due to governments cutting the oxygen flow through draconian laws, damaging quarantine rules and exorbitant Covid-19 tests.

We see some governments present a working plan to reopen borders only to renege on their promises, and what kind of message does that send to family businesses in tourism that are down to their last dollar?

It’s infuriating to most of us when we are told that government officials book expensive restaurant lunches or dinners, order the best wines and tell restaurants to switch on the air conditioning. Sitting elsewhere in the same restaurant, the have nots are told alcohol and air conditioners are prohibited to prevent Covid-19 infections.

UNWTO and the vast network of tourism officials who have a guaranteed pay packet every month need to recognise that millions of people who made travel possible have seen their business dreams shattered. Mega travel and hospitality company owners migrate like birds to a more favourable environment. Their empires remain robust and Covid-19 proof.  But what of the millions of former travel workers who are now seeking jobs outside of travel because they fear Covid-19 is here to stay and subsequent variants could shut down travel over and over again?

Travel will lose thousands of trained staff as the truth dawns about their career prospects. How many corporations in travel looked after their staff? How many kept them on the payroll throughout the crisis? If they did, they deserved to be recognised on World Tourism Day as true heroes.

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