Skift Take

The data now confirms it: vaccine hoarding by rich nations is having dire consequences on the global economy, and on society everywhere. But it's not too late for the travel industry to speak up and demand the resolution of the primary stumbling block to its sustained recovery.

Heading into 2022, travel’s leaders in rich nations have been focused on pushing for a return to normal, while domestic tourism helps keep their industries afloat. Scientists from the United Nations World Health Organization (UNWHO), however, warned that vaccine inequity was the biggest failure of 2021, which is certain to lead to more variants, with troubling global economic and social consequences. 

Indeed, the data’s now proving it. Global growth is set to decelerate markedly this year, as well as in 2023, due to ongoing Covid flare ups caused primarily by vaccine inequity, a World Bank report on global economic prospects released on Tuesday reveals.

“This underscores the importance of strengthening global cooperation to foster rapid and equitable vaccine distribution,” the World Bank report states.

In light of these findings, the United Nations General Assembly’s new social media campaign, “I STAND FOR #VaccineEquity,” launched at the start of the year, seems particularly timely. Download this graphic card template, upload your photo and tweet away the message that’s been largely ignored by the world’s most powerful leaders, by Big Pharma vaccine manufacturers, and by most of the travel industry.

An effective initiative, or nonsense?

At the very least, it’s an effort to place visibility on vaccine equity that far exceeds what’s come out of the travel industry in G10 countries, and an initiative which by and large could have been led by tourism and would have had more success in putting pressure on governments, while putting its travel influencers to good use.

An Ongoing Disparity Affecting Tourism Everywhere

More than a year has passed since vaccines emerged, yet the divergent pandemic recovery continues. Approximately 10 percent of people in low to middle income nations have received at least one dose, while countries such as Israel are moving to fourth doses.

A whopping 92 countries have been unable to vaccinate 40 percent of their population by the close of 2021. At the current pace, 109 countries won’t meet the target of vaccinating 70 percent by September 2022, according to Thomas Bollyky, director of global health at the Council on Foreign Relations on a recent webinar.

The biggest risk to investment in vaccination at home for high income countries, Bollyky added, is the underinvestment in vaccination abroad. 

Of course, it’s no revelation that variants present an economic risk for the travel industry and a major stumbling block to the seamless return of international tourism. Look no further than the latest culprit Omicron, deemed mild yet derailing businesses again and delaying international tourism recovery. 

But the economic data now backs the fact that achieving vaccine equity should be the priority.

“In the case of vaccines, the problem is very clear and not addressing it has consequences,” said Ayhan Kose, a chief economist at the World Bank who leads the institution’s global macroeconomic outlook, in a Financial Times news report. “We are pretending we can overcome the pandemic without vaccinating large populations around the world. That is not true.”

The consequences of global vaccine inequity loom large indeed, well beyond tourism but affecting its rebound the most. With inequality in vaccines comes inequality in public health, in society, movement and work, all of which leads to increased social tension and disruptions.  

A Lack of Bold Leadership in Travel

Sure, it’s doubtful the UN’s Twitter campaign — largely shared by high level UN officials around the world — will gain traction and succeed in getting G10 or G20 leaders and manufacturers to act and put global recovery and people before profits. But at the very least, calling for action raises visibility on the issue and puts pressure on the public and private sector players to step up.

Various segments of travel came together in 2021 for a colorful demonstration at Westminster to pressure governments to reopen travel for the summer. A few tourism businesses, such as Intrepid Travel, have also spoken up and campaigned on vaccine equity. But will the industry at large in the G10 nations finally put aside elitism and politics to unite and speak up on this issue, not as a feel good exercise but for the sustained economic recovery of an industry that is already suffering immeasurably from two years of disruption?

Tourism leaders’ focus, including the World Travel & Tourism Council and the United Nations World Tourism Organization, has remained on the lifting of entry restrictions and demanding funding for tourism businesses’ recovery amid the unpredictability every time variants emerge.

The pains are many indeed, but as long as inequity in global vaccine access continues, and as long as industry leaders in rich nations sit this one out rather than finding a way to rally up their peers to be part of the solution, tourism will see the frustrating cycle of uncertainty. The trip cancellations, the staffing shortages, the global live events that are cancelling for another year, and the deepening wedge of inequality that will have broader repercussions on the travel industry long-term than it is able to fully discern at this time. 

Travel leaders’ deep understanding of tourism’s interconnectedness could have helped others glean that vaccine equity isn’t about charity or aid, but a shared problem that will continue to negatively impact the industry’s bottom line everywhere, as well as public health, job security, in country safety and consumer confidence long term in a world that is increasingly volatile.

Perhaps of even greater concern is the lack of resolve and bold leadership in stepping up and being a strong voice among other industries, and what that could mean for potential future pandemics and global travel pauses. 

The opportunities being missed at this historic time to accelerate recovery and tap into a competitive future are innumerable by taking a back seat to a global problem, one which no other industry is better placed to vocalize and amplify than tourism.

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Tags: coronavirus recovery, united nations, vaccine equity

Photo credit: Travel Day of Action demonstration in Westminster to pressure government to reopen for summer 2021 travel Breaking Travel News / Flickr Commons

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