Skift Take

Forced by the pandemic, the travel industry is at an inflection point. After a decade-long bender of growth, it's facing multiple crises and an uncertain future. Can the organization that's tasked with representing the global commercial travel industry adapt to the new challenge?

The Covid-19 pandemic caught much of the travel industry on the backfoot. As it mercilessly unfolds through 2020, it is shining a bright light on the existing strengths and weaknesses across the travel industry — many of which existed long before the pandemic profoundly changed our lives.

Nowhere has this been more clear than with the World Travel and Tourism Council. The non-profit membership organization created three decades ago has certainly fought to regain traveler confidence through past crises, including health scares.

But it’s fair to say that Covid-19 has eclipsed events like SARS and 9/11 by several orders of magnitude. At a generationally defining moment — when the travel industry needs one cohesive voice more than ever before — the organization’s attempt at a response has left some to wonder if it is capable of doing anything other than cheerleading for the travel industry’s growth, particularly mass tourism, and whether it is out of touch with a new generation’s needs and beliefs.

That response, according to both on and off-the-record conversations Skift conducted over the past month, was marked by a confusing lack of coordination with the United Nations World Tourism Organization, an underestimation of just how fragmented and unwieldy the travel industry has become, and an assumption that the pre-pandemic growth trajectory was undoubtedly the one the industry should want back.

As a membership organization, clubby WTTC was conceived as a way to lobby for the industry’s economic interests, at a time when it struggled to assert itself as a unified industry at all.

In many ways that problem still persists: The travel industry is still six to eight industries trying to operate as one on a global scale. But thanks, in part, to the council’s work, the industry’s status as an economic powerhouse has become plain to see over the past decade. As WTTC is so often known to cite: Pre-pandemic, travel and tourism accounted for 10.3 percent of global gross domestic product, and supported one in 10 jobs worldwide.

People can disagree about whether the global travel industry will regain its prior economic might post-Covid. But what can’t rationally be denied are the existential challenges facing the travel industry over the next decade, from the climate emergency to political protectionism. Thanks to the pandemic, the growth-assured industry that WTTC has lobbied for over the last 10 years currently does not exist. The decade-long bender is over.

In many ways, the future of WTTC post-pandemic mirrors the future of the travel industry itself. What does the organization’s response to the pandemic tell us about its ability to lead a humbled, and perhaps less upward-bound industry? Can it evolve into something that serves a purpose other than highlighting the inexorable — and sometimes destructive — economic growth brought by mass travel and tourism? And what does a successful tourism industry looks like when success is not solely defined by economic growth?

An Awkward Overlap

WTTC is made up of more than 200 C-suite executives, presidents, and leaders spanning hotels, airlines, airports, tour operators, online travel agencies, cruises, agencies, destinations, and more. It has built a key function for itself in its existence, providing data and analysis in its annual economic impact report, widely-cited country-specific deep dives, and more.

Numerous people Skift spoke to for this story said that these reports have been instrumental in asserting the sector’s presence across the world and helping stakeholders make decisions. Even if one can quibble with how the data is collected or analyzed, having a stable benchmark across more than 180 countries is immensely useful for such a fragmented industry.

And throughout the pandemic, WTTC has continued that function, highlighting the severe economic impact the Covid shutdown has had on GDP, employment, and the like. Striking statistics include the potential loss of 197 million jobs and $5.5 trillion in travel and tourism-related gross domestic product due to prolonged travel restrictions. In addition it says the U.S. may lose $155 billion in 2020 from the loss of international visitors. The picture is bad, and WTTC has helped show just how bad.

When it came to mitigating the public health trade-offs of reopening travel, WTTC released its Safe Travels protocols in late May, which were framed as a way the sector could resume serving travelers with safety in mind. Reception of these guidelines — which were accompanied by a consumer-facing seal of approval, the Safe Travels Stamp — seemed mixed across the industry. Some felt it was too little too late, while others felt they were a bold and novel leadership step for the organization to take in an uncertain time, especially in countries where government advice was lacking.

“I think the WTTC is really trying to take leadership in terms of trying to put out some base guidelines and standard protocols for people to start using as they slowly recover,” Lola Akinmade Åkerström, co-founder of Nordic TB, told Skift. “Countries are changing and flip-flopping their restrictions weekly and WTTC is trying to stay on top of all this. Keep in mind, I live in Sweden whose Covid-19 policies are rogue and rather dangerous, so whatever WTTC is doing feels spades better to me.”

But there were various critiques of the guidelines as well. One, of course, is who exactly the guidelines were for. Few consumers, after all, know what WTTC is, making the efficacy of a B2C stamp questionable. While vendors and suppliers in the supply chain were certainly in need of guidance, many had a glut of guidelines coming from all directions — local, regional, and federal governments included. This was especially true in Asia, Gary Bowerman, director of Check-in Asia, a travel-focused consulting company, said.

“The public health and business protocols and procedures put in place at an early stage in the pandemic by governments are broad ranging, and in many countries are strictly implemented and followed,” Bowerman told Skift. “So attempting, pretty late in the day, to introduce overarching health and safety policies for reopening travel from a global perspective are futile — particularly as Asian travel companies and consumers are very aware about the way governments in parts of Europe and North America approached the coronavirus, and they are simply more trusting of their own governments than of a private travel institution based in a different continent.”

The protocols were also curious because they came out the same week as the public sector organization that speaks for the travel industry, UNWTO released its own set of guidelines. While UNWTO officially endorsed WTTC’s Safe Travel’s stamp — something touted in the launch press release — the UN agency did not have any involvement in actually crafting them, according to a source.

Though one was for the public sector and one for the private, the two sets of guidelines covered much of the same terrain and were released within 24 hours of each other. As Skift reported at the time, this led some to ask why the two organizations didn’t just work together on one, cohesive document at such a crucial moment for the industry.

This obvious and awkward overlap of UNWTO and WTTC manifested several more times over the summer. Both released separate recovery dashboards, leading to a kind of battle of the dashboards in industry meetings, sources said. WTTC also sent open letters to the heads of states of 10 nations that serve as some of the world’s largest source markets. This was done without any apparent collaboration from the UNWTO, which regularly does work to foster cohesion among heads of state. Numerous people Skift spoke to for this story found UNWTO and WTTC’s apparent distaste for working together both confusing and counter-productive at such a pivotal time.

Tim Fairhurst, the secretary general of the European Tourism Association, said that part of the redundancy may have been caused by the vacuum created by poor governance.

“During the current crisis we have seen proliferation of guidelines and protocols for the return of safe business operations, and a variety of ‘recovery dashboards’ displaying an increasingly eclectic presentation of data in multiple forms,” Fairhurst said. “But for confidence and a predictable business environment to return, what we most need are clear, co-ordinated and evidence-based travel restrictions, and sufficient public health interventions to reduce their need.”

With many governments apparently not competent enough or too divided to provide that — and multilateral bodies like the EU and UN unable to mandate it — a vacuum of sorts was formed. “Into this competence gap has surged a wealth of well-intentioned analysis and prescription in the absence of a coherent and effective policy response,” Fairhurst said.

Indeed, erratic governance in some of tourism’s biggest powerhouses is arguably the biggest challenge that WTTC has faced. Anyone who watches the news can see it is wholly incongruous to think of the likes of Boris Johnson or Donald Trump — two leaders that seem to represent the very antithesis of international cooperation — responding to WTTC’s call for “strong international coordination to save the travel and tourism sector and global economy.” And yet, the council publicly appealed to them anyway. It’s not clear if they expected anything to actually happen in return.

WTTC’s president and CEO Gloria Guevara did not make herself available for an interview for this story. But in written responses to Skift’s questions, she said that UNWTO’s guidelines were designed for the public sector, whereas WTTC’s were for the private sector. She also noted that the council’s work appealing to governments included some nations, like the U.S. and UK, that are not currently members of UNWTO.

Marcelo Risi, director of communications for UNWTO, told Skift there has been considerable behind the scenes collaboration, with his organization regularly participating in WTTC’s weekly calls, and the council being part of the UN agency’s crisis committee which convened in March.

As for the overlapping and uncoordinated release of guidelines and dashboards, he said he didn’t see that as problematic: “We welcome every innovation and initiative that contributes to restoring trust to get the sector moving again.”

An Unwieldy Industry

No one is arguing that WTTC has had an easy job in 2020. Advocating for an industry that operates all over the world, in all kinds of different ways, with different government and regulatory frameworks is a herculean task even in the best of times. Indeed, the difficulty of that raises a question that may plague WTTC over the next ten years: Has the travel and tourism industry simply become too large, fragmented, and unwieldy for a single trade organization to effectively represent its global interests?

Guevara wrote that “while the travel and tourism sector has grown to include a hugely diverse range of experiences, WTTC is committed to remain the voice of the travel and tourism private sector globally and will continue to focus on its three strategic priorities, safe and seamless traveler journey, crisis preparedness and management, and sustainable growth.”

There’s a critique that trails many complex and bureaucratic institutions, and WTTC is no different: That they are ultimately in the business of justifying their own existence. However, Darrell Wade, the co-founder and chairman of the Intrepid Group and a longtime, though not uncritical, member of WTTC — and recent addition to its executive committee — said that’s too simplistic. There is still a clear need for the likes of WTTC, he argues.

“There’s two ways you could go: You could just say ‘it’s all too hard, we’re just going to stick to ourselves, be a good company, and do what we do.’ Or you could take the alternative view: ‘Well we are in an amazing industry, a huge industry, we’ve got to start acting like it, and people need to start stepping up to the plate or we’re never going to do it,’” Wade said. “Full credit to these large organizations that their CEOs do in fact come to the WTTC meetings, they do get on the line. Whilst we’re not always as effective as we should be, it’s better than it was, and I think it will be better in the future than it was now.”

Still, the task is a hard one. Check-in Asia’s Bowerman said he could see WTTC becoming less and less relevant in the Asia pacific region post-Covid, where tourism is much more state-driven than in other regions, and regional dynamics are becoming ever-more complex.

“Prior to the pandemic, the travel sectors were becoming more complex, more aligned to regional economic drivers and less globally comparable,” Bowerman said. “China was among the first to notice this, and — because it wants to assert its global economic influence — it has started to set up its own regional institutions, including in the travel industry. Multilateral institutions of all creeds are struggling to influence the reshaping world order, and travel and tourism is certainly no exception. This was becoming the case before Covid-19, and will be accelerated from now onwards.”

And then there’s the membership challenge itself. With so many companies struggling due to lost revenue from the pandemic, will WTTC find itself struggling to renew members who can afford the attendant fees? Guevara did not answer a question about whether the organization had lost members during this time, but said “we have been encouraged by [members’] resilience and determination in these unprecedented times.” She also highlighted a recently-added tier of associate membership devoted to small and medium enterprises, which serve as “the backbone of our industry.” That itself has been seen by many small travel companies as too little, and still too selective of who gets to join.

Despite all this, many people that Skift spoke to for this story conceded that the organization is still the best hope the private sector has for global cooperation and representation. The pandemic — while it may have provided the ultimate test — also serves as an unprecedented opportunity for the organization to shift into one that’s ready to meet the profound challenges that the next decade of travel will bring.

An Inconvenient Truth

As the pandemic has weighed on, the severity of the climate emergency facing the world seems to have dialed up its intensity by the week. It can feel like we’re watching two global crises unfold at once, except one is guaranteed to last much longer. As Skift’s Dennis Schaal soberingly wrote, “If you consider the potential long-term impacts of climate change on the world — and the world of travel — then the Covid-19 pandemic will likely come to be viewed as a very painful, tragic footnote.”

There’s a clear logical progression here that, somewhat bafflingly, is rarely said out loud in the travel sector: The climate emergency is real. The primary way to fight it is to reduce carbon emissions immediately, and yet carbon emissions are a primary byproduct of the travel and tourism industry. A more sustainable travel industry fundamentally has to be one with less carbon emissions. In the absence of any meaningful progress towards carbon free flying — discounting the murky practice of carbon offsets — that means people will need to travel less to reduce emissions.

Even if the travel industry does bounce back to its pre-Covid self in the medium term, it still will face this inconvenient truth. The global and devastating disruption wrought by the pandemic shows that perhaps the travel industry of 2019 isn’t one we should want back. Maybe we need to accept that flying across the world on a low-cost lark, or for a 2 hour meeting, just because we can, will never be sustainable — and an industry whose growth trajectory is based on that premise can’t either.

Right now, said Brad Dean, CEO of Discover Puerto Rico, seems like a great time to grapple with that tough reality.

“Covid will continue to shape this industry for the foreseeable future, but what’s most needed today is an actionable vision of how travel thrives post-Covid,” Dean said. “The industry’s recent track record of explosive growth and expansion had to come to an end at some point and now that we’ve endured the slowdown, we have an opportunity to redefine the industry beyond its economic importance. Yesterday’s solutions won’t solve today’s problems, so it’s high time we elevate our thinking beyond past measures of success, seeking a unified vision of purpose, impact and transformation through travel that transcends governmental borders and limitations.”

WTTC has put out many press releases and PDFs on sustainability, and it names addressing climate change as one of its main goals in its sustainable growth initiatives. It is encouraging the industry to reach carbon neutrality — meaning any carbon dioxide emissions are balanced either by offsets and/or carbon capture and storage  — by 2050. It estimates that travel and tourism accounts for 5 percent of total global emissions.

But even with its own strong rhetoric that “climate change is existential and is outpacing us,” it’s hard to see how the travel industry makes any genuine progress in the next 10 years with WTTC’s stance on air travel. WTTC itself estimates that 40 percent of travel and tourism’s emissions come from aviation, and yet said in an October 2019 report from its Climate and Environment Action Forum that “the answer is not less airline travel, but rather airline technology that is zero emission and we should be working on that as aggressively as possible.” And yet, it is not contested in the aviation industry that emission-free flying is decades off, if it’s ever achieved.

So how can a growing travel industry —one where people keep flying more and more after the pandemic subsides — really be sustainable?

“Sustainability will continue to be a critical issue for the future, and we will be working closely with our Members to help them meet their commitments to reducing carbon emissions,” Guevara said. “The WTTC is also collaborating with UNFCCC, UNEP, and institutions such as Harvard to drive this important agenda forward. Continuing investment by aircraft manufacturers and the wider aviation industry looks set to deliver commercial jets which will have lower carbon emissions, which currently only contribute 2 percent of emissions.”

Intrepid’s Wade believes that WTTC can do more when it comes to the climate emergency. He’s pleased to be the chair of a new committee on WTTC to address just that.

“There’s political threats in terms of protectionist governments who might put up walls or retaliatory walls in terms of visas etc. But obviously there’s the elephant in the room which of course is climate change,” Wade said. “I have been vocal in the past at WTTC summits saying as an industry we should be taking a much stronger structured approach to grappling with climate change.”

Wade added that you can’t boast about an industry’s large contribution to GDP, without also taking on the proportionate responsibility that brings in facing the climate crisis.

“Our industry is growing, then by definition our emissions are also growing, and that’s just not sustainable,” Wade said.

When asked whether she believes the travel and tourism industry will be able to bounce back to its pre-pandemic self, Guevara wrote “we strongly believe that by working as one we can return to safe and seamless travels with world-class standards of hygiene to travelers and help regenerate the threatened jobs and livelihoods of the 330 million people who worked in the sector before the pandemic.”

As many people have indicated, WTTC plays a crucial role in underlining and even determining the key metrics of the travel industry. In terms of finding the bottom of the Covid-19 crisis and tracking how recovery goes, it certainly still can fill that vital role. But if WTTC’s main goal remains getting travel back to where it was, then it may fail to help the industry prepare for what’s coming next.

The good old days may not be coming back. Nor should they.


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Tags: coronavirus, tourism, travel, unwto, wttc

Photo credit: The next decade of travel won't look like the last. Andrew Mayovskyy / Adobe

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