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Four years ago, I was in an interview with a Portuguese paper, I was asked “how would I define the current moment, considering events related to terrorism, Brexit and the election of Trump? “at the time, no one expected the covid crisis and the impact it has had on the travel industry, in particular.

I believe this is now, a defining moment in the history of mankind all together. Everything will change.

Four years ago, I remember saying that terrorism, Brexit and Trump election will affect the travel industry negatively, and in different ways and degrees but tourism, as we knew it then, would bounce back and it did in less than a year.

Today we will not bounce back but we would leap forward, into a new world, a new norm. A better and more sustainable world.

I, therefore, am very optimistic but not in going back to where we were, rather advance forward into a more sustainable growth form

People will continue. To travel, even more, but they would do it in a different and more sustainable way.

The travel sector is, without doubt, one of the most affected sectors as a result of covid -19. Unfortunately, each government is working on its own doing what they think is best to protect their population. Which is expected and is understandable, for life is the most important thing to worry about, and governments are doing their best to protect their people.

The only way, however, any country could have done better in resolving this life & livelihood dilemma, is to coordinate its actions and procedures, with its neighbors first.

The trick is not to do a perfect job on your own, it is indeed to agree on minimum procedures. Starting with ones surrounding destinations around, till we reach an international level. What we need is a new multilateral system, a more harmonized, fair and equitable system, because it is not important how successful every country is on its own, if one cannot travel from one place to another. This is the nature of travel, it connects people and places.

We have to function as one, you cannot have one country insisting on quarantine, while its neighbor demanding a vaccination passport and a third requiring simply 72 hours testing before arrival or at entry points. The EU is a good example of this failure of the multilateral system, even the united states are not “united” anymore, each state is acting on its own, so is the UN system all together, they all failed us. We need to rebuild a new multilateral system from bottom up, brick by brick. A more fair and equitable system, one that does not depend on the principles of have and have not. Vaccination is a good example, at this rate, it would take us no less than 5 years to vaccinate 70% of the world population. And the travel industry will only bounce forward to a new norm, when the whole world is ready to travel under a unified system. The nature of travel is that you have to send people and receive people. It is, therefore, not wise maybe, to depend solely on vaccination.

It is not fair, nor equitable in today’s world for countries and people that do not have the ability to vaccinate the majority of their population. We do not want to turn this into a political game of those who have and those that have not.

But most importantly, we will all loose, if so. Those that vaccinated and, those who were unable to vaccinate, no one would travel to a non-vaccinated destination, and no vaccinated destination would accept receiving anyone from a non-vaccinated destination. After all travel is about connecting everybody everywhere, so it will not work, until everyone is vaccinated, and that would take a long time.

Affordable testing in a harmonized way maybe, just maybe, more logical for a faster and more immediate recovery. Or a combination of both vaccination and testing systems. Because, if we want a quick recovery, we can start, rather, immediately by harmonizing a testing system, make it become more available and more affordable for all. It is easier and faster, but most important have a one international agreement for that to work.

There will be no coming back until people have a peace of mind, trust and confidence in a system. One system, that would be an international system. They are not going to travel simply because their governments says “ you can now travel “

There is an opportunity that comes out of every crisis. The prime winner from this crisis is domestic and regional tourism. Which is one of the opportunities coming out of this crisis, it is true that domestic travel does not bring in hard currency or contribute to the balance of trade, but it helps keep businesses and jobs alive, which is a good thing especially for developing countries, where a tourist is only a foreigner, a blond, blue eyed person. “No country that is not visited and enjoyed by its own people first, can nor be enjoyed by an outside visitor. “To me, this a matter of principle. Not just a current or temporary need due to a crisis. Which will set the record clear once and for all. 

Many lessons can be learnt, like the value and importance of travel all together, in particular domestic and regional travel, which has become more important, the importance and prominence of digital technology, the health and sanitation safety rules of the new norm and finally the need to retrain our workforce to adjust to all of the above and use the ideal time.

As for who would survive the crises. Only those that understand that we are moving towards a new norm, a new reality will survive. A new world is in the making, one that is more fair, equitable and therefore, more sustainable. Everyone has to adjust, unfortunately the travel industry is not the best in adjusting and thinking innovatively let us remember that “we were able to put a man on the moon, before we were able to put two wheels on a suitcase “that shows how conservative, slow to move, our sector is. Airlines have to communicate more confidence and trust in cleanliness and hygiene, and they must have a more flexible booking and cancelation policy. Hotels have to recognize that domestic and regional clients are going to be the first to come so national holidays will see better traffic, and then maybe digital nomads, which would require special long-term deals, so special and different deals will have to be offered. Restaurants will also have to cater more for delivery and adjust seating for social distancing and outdoor seating. Besides other changes, all will have to convey a feeling of cleanliness and hygiene.

The world is also becoming more digital we simply have to adapt and make the best use of technology, to think out of the box. Tourism must recognize that everything can become digital and virtual, not just meetings and conferences, but also public events, like concerts or big gatherings, or gym activities and even personal events. I had my daughter married via zoom, from Dubai, for example. I was in Amman, Jordan with the father of the groom, she and her husband were in Dubai, and the priest was on the other line. We just have to be imaginative and use available technology to think out of the box.

We must first recognize the changes and admit them, then, we should think imaginatively of the needed changes through technology, sustainability and imaginative, honest and transparent promotion, as explained in previous examples, suiting the new digital, young and well-informed consumer. 

My friends,

In tourism there is no competition between neighbors. Usually, what is good for my neighbor is good for me. Like the principle in a “souk” where all those that sell spices or sell gold are in the same street one customer brings another. It’s domestic and regional travel that would revive first.

There are three stages for revive and recovery:

  • Keep businesses alive, which requires direct support from governments or soft loans. Just to ensure businesses have enough time to adjust to the new reality and survive, simply remain alive.
  • Concentrate on domestic and regional travel, which requires the private sector to adjust quickly to the new realities of such travelers and offer new deals. Then and only then can governments stop the direct support.
  • International travel that could start with the young digital nomads and special travel insurance policies for foreigners, which requires special arrangements and packages from the accommodation sector as well as governments support in connecting with local insurance providers, promotions, visas and tax issues for longer stay of digital

My friends,

My message to you at the end is, come together. We can only do it together. No government can do it alone, no matter how good your plan is. There are opportunities that come out of every crisis, let us not miss this one. Let us remember that, in Chinese the word crisis and the word opportunity are the same.

Thank you!

Dr. Taleb Rifai