Skift Take

In her first interview with the press, Julia Simpson showed us she has big plans for tourism. But will getting jobs back and reopening borders cloud the urgency to manage tourism's growth post pandemic? That's the unanswered, million-dollar question.

When the World Travel & Tourism Council (WTTC), the largest and only organization representing tourism’s private sector, announced five months ago the appointment of Julia Simpson as only the organization’s second female CEO, the challenges ahead seemed daunting. They are even more so today.

The WTTC and its relevance as an organization faces higher scrutiny at a pivotal time when the travel industry is shrouded with uncertainty. It’s being forced to innovate the way it operates and grow post-pandemic if it is to remain competitive and resilient. That means being inclusive, climate ready, collaborative with host communities and transparent in its metrics to determine the true cost and benefit of tourism.

But the question remains: will the WTTC’s new leader manage to steer the group to take on a more activist, can-do role that the industry desperately needs?

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Skift spoke to Simpson in an exclusive first interview since starting her assignment on August 15, about her vision of bringing back tourism and jobs, tackling an evolving industry, whether the impacts of mass tourism can be managed, vaccine equity and her passion points which include a more diverse leadership in travel.

Below is an edited version of the interview.

Skift: Your career has spanned journalism to local government, 10 Downing Street and the private sector in aviation. What is driving you to now tackle the challenge of leading the travel industry’s private sector at this pivotal time?

Julia Simpson: Travel and tourism, as you know, has been turned absolutely upside down. I think it’s one of the industries that’s been hit the hardest. And I think there’s a real role for the WTTC and everybody in our industry, including the journalists, to try and explain to governments that while borders remain closed — obviously, priority everywhere is people’s health and their safety — but actually there’s enormous damage being done to the economy, and lots of people are losing their jobs.

In 2019, there were about 334 million jobs in the travel and tourism sector and the contribution it made to the global GDP was $9.2 trillion. Now since the pandemic that $9.2 trillion halved. So, that’s the money that’s not going into the economy, and we’ve lost about 62 million jobs.

My mission now is to get those jobs back. Before the pandemic we were one of the few industries that were growing, we were outstripping global GDP, I’m sure you know, and so we were one of the growth sectors.

I also think it’s an interesting industry because over 50 percent of the people in the industry are women. You’ve got to remember our sectors are made up of a lot of small family businesses, and a lot of those businesses are run by women. And I can only speak to our industry, but I think that [women] have been massively affected.

So we’re basically encouraging economies and countries to try and start opening their borders. The WTTC launched some safety protocols and a stamp to really help; it was before my time as I’ve been in the job for a month, but I think really the industry started flailing around and the WTTC was able to give good leadership, and gave a platform for a lot of companies to come together and say how do we work our way through this? And that role is still there.

Skift: What is your vision for the WTTC during your leadership?

Simpson: There is a shorter term and a longer term vision. The short term job in hand is to reopen countries, get international travel reinstated, get those 62 million jobs back.

Also I think it’s part of the human DNA to want to connect them to travel. And people sometimes think of travel and tourism as your yearly holiday — of course, that is super important to people’s well being but as we know travel’s not just about that. It’s about connecting the world, it’s about business. Things like zoom have been an enormous success, but I don’t think they will ever ultimately replace human contact.

We’ve also been looking at sustainability, obviously as an organization. We represent lots of different sectors — we don’t control those sectors, they are our members — but we’re looking at putting together everybody’s ambitions, and we have already announced in 2019 about having a net zero target ambition for 2050. I know that different industries have been now reevaluating that with the focus on COP and whether things can be done faster.

I think sustainability is critical. There are many industries that are facing the challenge of sustainability. We all need to pull together and it’s not about finger wagging and blaming one industry. And I mean sustainability in its broadest ESG sense, traveling and tourism does incredible work in communities and sustaining communities, but also creating sustainable communities.

What’s amazing about travel and tourism, particularly in poorer economies, it brings people in from informal economies and it gives them jobs in a formal environment.

So get the industry back up and running. Really see how we can be leaders in sustainability, look at sustainability in its broadest sense is one of our critical areas. And I think going back to the founding principles of the WTTC is to get governments to realize the value of our industry. They often realize the value of the steel industry, or their tech center, but do they understand the real value of our industry and if I’m honest, I still think we’ve got a job there.

Skift: The WTTC has been recognized for its past work in demonstrating travel’s economic power and the industry’s important role in creating jobs and development. But with overtourism issues and an ensuing pandemic, doubts have increased as to whether the organization is capable of transitioning away from the status quo of pushing for more tourists and instead embracing inclusive growth. Particularly since its larger members operate a mass tourism model. What’s your reaction to this criticism — is the post pandemic WTTC able and equipped to shift away from the status quo? How do you plan on achieving this?

Simpson: I think it’s a really good question and I think that customers or travelers are going to be demanding different things. I don’t think it’s going to stop them traveling, but they are going to be much more aware and, you know, private sector, you do have to respond to the demands.

But I do think it’s potentially going to be a more discerning traveler, and they’re going to want different things. And maybe there could be a shift away from what some people call a mass tourism to people wanting to see new areas, rural areas, relate differently to their surroundings so I think we will have that.

I think I also have to recognize, you know — well, I’m sitting in Portugal today for a travel conference — I am very, very European in the way I see things and the way you talked about overtourism. But let’s take the Balearic Islands — they were sort of at the forefront of mass tourism, they have learned over the decades, how to manage that because if they don’t manage it, they don’t make it a positive experience for the consumer and sustainable, they won’t have an industry. And they have done some incredible work in ensuring how do you handle mass travels.

But I think we also need to recognize that I’d never want travel just to become the preserve of the wealthy, you know, we don’t want to go back to the 1950s. So we need to find a way where people who don’t necessarily have as big a budget as others can still travel sustainably.

So I think it is an evolving market and I do actually think it brings a lot of good with it, as long as it’s well managed in the community.

Skift: Before you came along, the WTTC had been pushing on reopening and lifting travel restrictions, but it remained largely silent on vaccine equity. When Skift last spoke to the group, there was an admission that they could be a lot more active and vocal on that front. Is that something you might look at more closely?

Simpson: It’s interesting because I think it was last week I was on a call with Covax — we invited Covax, the international organization which is trying to distribute vaccines more equitably around the world. And we had a meeting with them, and we said that we want to try and support them in any which way because it’s true that until we’re all covered none of us are covered.

So I couldn’t agree with you more and I will definitely be throwing my weight and I think all our members want that as well.

And the other really interesting thing, is of course in some places like Jamaica you get hesitancy over vaccination; some of the companies that we’ve been working that are our members are actually using ambassadors, within the sector, to talk to their own people. So we can be quite powerful on the ground because, you know, governments can push out statistics, they can wagtheir fingers, but actually if you’ve got troops’ feet on the ground they are massive advocates, and that’s been working very, very successfully.’

Skift: The public-private alignment has proven critical in terms of getting the industry to figure out solutions to travel’s restart. During the initial pandemic year, the UNWTO and the WTO seemed to not have been working as collaboratively as they could have. Sources went as far as telling Skift there is an “apparent distaste for working together.” Do you plan on shifting this perceived friction and working closely with the UNWTO?

Simpson: You know, the UNWTO is a UN subcommittee, it is democratically elected, and it doesn’t have every country as members but nevertheless, they cover a very, very important range of countries, and they are the governments’ spokespeople if you like, and we represent the commercial sector. And I think, at this time it is imperative that government and private sector come together because we’ve got a common cause.

Of course, sometimes you don’t always agree; we’re not always agreeing about how this is being done now; we’ve been calling on the UK Government to get rid of the traffic light system we’ve been quite critical of that. There are massive illogicalities at the minute.

So I think that the government has a really, really important role, the UNWTO isn’t the only bit of government obviously — we deal with individual nations, we deal with local authorities, we deal with regulators. But what I think is important about my background is that I have got a government background; I’ve worked in government, I’ve been a director, I’ve been a senior civil servant, I understand the importance of government. I also have worked for many many years in the private sector.

Sometimes our positions won’t align but in this matter, I think it’s really really important that us and government bodies come together and we work together to solve this problem.

I did meet the UNWTO General Secretary informally before I took up post.

Skift: The future of tourism. If we’re really honest, and the ability of companies to remain competitive in a post pandemic world will rely enormously on having a more diverse leadership. We need, as you’ve also said in the past, more women as well as more people of color in boardrooms. How can the WTTC play a role in pushing travel to recognize that it can’t find solutions when the people representative of our industry and communities aren’t in the decision making room?

Simpson: I’m not trying to dodge the question, but it’s not unique to our industry. I read a really interesting Harvard report and I can’t quote the figures now but it’s really categorically proven that the more diverse the boardroom you have, the better decisions you make, and the better decisions you make — if you’re in a commercial environment like our members — the better is your bottom line. And also more and more, you have to represent your customers right up through the organization.

So I am 100 percent with you on this. It’s something I feel very passionately about. I’m lucky to say my own boardroom at the WTTC, I’ve got six colleagues, and five of them are women. They come from different international backgrounds, although they are not of color in that sense.

And we’re very lucky, we’ve got Arnold Donald and we also have Glenda McNeal as well on the boardroom. So I think we’re really really aware of it, because it’s the right thing to do, and it makes good business sense and it makes for a better world and better decisions. And I can absolutely assure you I’m going to be at the forefront of this campaign because it’s something I’ve campaigned for, you know, all my life. You get me on to unconscious bias, I could do another whole interview with you.

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