Skift Take

For Pacific Asia Travel Association CEO Liz Ortiguera, there's no sustained recovery for global tourism whilst billions lack vaccine access. Will her North American and European counterparts step up and join her call to push for vaccine equity?

From the start of the pandemic, the Pacific and Asia region took a separate trajectory from the rest of the world. Longer lasting border closures and a stricter approach towards Covid control, as well as a delay in vaccine access in some parts, have translated into a distinct tourism recovery picture.

Northeast Asia, South East Asia and South Asia were particularly hard hit in 2021, with international arrivals totalling less than 10 percent the volume of 2019, according to the Pacific Asia Travel Association, and trailing the Americas’ recovery pace.

Some destinations have been reopening slowly since last year, from Thailand to Fiji, and the process continues to evolve unevenly thanks to Omicron and unequal vaccination rates. Despite the challenges, however, the region’s tourism industry remains optimistic about an eventual rebound.

Liz Ortiguera, CEO of Pacific Asia Travel Association (PATA) since June 2021, told Skift that expediting the recovery means continuing to prepare PATA’s members in adopting best practices for the return of travelers and helping them tap into new markets, but it also means prioritizing advocating for vaccine equity.   

“No one is safe until everyone’s safe, and awareness on that needs to be raised,” Ortiguera told Skift. PATA launched a Global Travel Sector Vaccine Coalition in December 2021, in partnership with the Virgin Atlantic Foundation, making it the first travel association to formally advocate for vaccine equity and call on the global tourism industry to act.

Skift caught up with Ortiguera about the Pacific Asia region’s tourism recovery ahead, and her vision to expedite recovery in an equitable manner. Below is an edited version of the interview.

Lebawit Lily Girma: As Asia’s patchwork restart continues — what is the biggest challenge that’s facing your members right now, and how are you working to accelerate Asia’s broader recovery and reopening?  

Liz Ortiguera: Asia Pacific is so diverse in the size, the shape and the composition of its member nations, and from the beginning there has been a high focus on health and safety. So when you sit in these tourism minister meetings, the predominant discussion is about vaccines and health and safety practices. So the destinations are being very mindful of that. Now, that being said, my background is American and in a number of the wealthy Western nations and here sitting in Singapore, actually I have the benefit of a developed nation system — but the disparity in access to vaccines has been huge. Three billion people are still waiting for their first vaccines. 

So certainly that has led to each country having the difficult task of weighing public health and safety and the economic needs to employ their citizens and so that’s been a very challenging decision making process I’m sure for all the nations.  

There’s a lot of great work that’s being done like I mentioned on health and safety, but also evolving the product to meet the needs of the post pandemic traveler. There’s a lot of pent up interest.

And I would say that Asia has such amazing destinations that would be the antidote to the stress, the anxiety — people are yearning for nature, authenticity and wellness oriented holidays. I think that that needs to be communicated. 

The preparedness of the countries needs to be well communicated and there are different policies as we see in the various continents. So I think that communicating that but also communicating as a region that we’ve got amazing new products that meet the needs of the post pandemic traveler. 

Skift: What do you see in terms of how tourism could be more equitable in the Pacific and Asia region and more sustainable, from marketing and beyond – what is your vision?

Ortiguera:  You used the term equitable. Pre pandemic, the travel sector has been such an engine for growth in terms of jobs creation — one in 10 jobs in Asia Pacific is travel and tourism related. And it will return to that, Asia Pacific will again be the engine for growth globally given the rising economies, given the scale of their population here, but those jobs are also the first to be impacted. And so in terms of equitable, one of the programs we just piloted was to basically support that most impacted segment: the informal workers.

The vendors, the tour guides, the drivers, the hostel owners — their livelihoods really depend on travel and they don’t necessarily have alternate means, and so we wanted to reach out to them with training on both health and safety and also how they can best adapt their businesses to the new consumer, the new normal. Things that we take for granted, like teaching them how to wear a mask properly, teaching them how to do an antigen test, how to get their business listed in Google, how to market themselves online, and basic tools like that. And how do they handle health and safety now when they ask for domestic tourists, and for international tourists coming back.I think that is a segment that is really the most impacted in our region. 

They just piloted this in Thailand, we just did it in December. So we reach out to 500 of these casual or informal workers and there’s interest in expanding this to other markets. I think it’s much needed in many, many destinations. 

Skift: I’ve covered vaccine equity for Skift for almost a year now, calling on the industry to step up and do something, anything. So it’s great to see that you are spearheading a vaccine equity campaign as a travel association. Why was this important to you and what progress have you made so far, as far as your members’ efforts?

Ortiguera: I think it was just this general awareness of what is foundational for us to have a sustained recovery. I will share that my first career, I was in pharma in R&D; at one point and I was doing cancer research. And I come from a family of doctors. So I’m one part scientist, but four parts business person looking at opportunities and in the face of crisis, how can we support our governments and our multinationals and SMEs either in finding the opportunities and the silver lining to this challenge. Sitting where I do bridging east and west and the number of countries that are developed and less developed, you see the disparity.

It’s even more exacerbated because the high demand for boosters in the wealthy nations is just going to give more of a supply crunch and make it more difficult— there are still three billion people that need to get vaccinated.. In a wealthy nation you can just go to your CVS and go get a vaccine. Here we’ve still got people waiting for months. They don’t know when they’re going to get their first vaccine. 

This is an effort that, first of all, will impact everyone unless we have a sustainable solution to this pandemic. And we can’t just leave it up to the governments to sort out because every government has their primary responsibility to their own citizens. So I do think there’s a role for multinationals to play and citizens, individual citizens; $5 for one vaccine, and we can close the gap. 

Since I became CEO in June, we did several educational webinars in conjunction with UNICEF international vaccine Institute. Teaching our destinations, how do you address misinformation? What are some strategies to get community engagement because there are so many interesting case examples in different countries around how they were able to engage and educate the citizens about vaccines.

There are many ways that this can be supported, it’s not just through donations, but it can be through that, through education, through the platforms that we have, it can be through transaction based donation campaigns, or it can be CSR corporate donations. There are many different ways that it can be enabled. 

Skift: Your latest visitor forecast update — is there anything you can share from it that would give us an idea of what this year is looking like for travelers coming back to the region?

Ortiguera: Given how the news changes so rapidly, both in the health world and also in the travel world, we have increased the frequency of our forecast updates to quarterly. And we’ve also added in more webinars from different sources. It’s so important to hear how consumer sentiment is changing, how products need to evolve, and as well as policies are changing. 

So with respect to our forecast, because of the large number of factors that can impact international arrival, we started doing mild to medium and severe, depending on how the pandemic evolves. That way, it’s more of a range versus a single linear forecast. And so generally it’s been tracking on the moderate and the mild in the last three quarters. The forecasts haven’t changed too much in terms of, we see recovery, back to 2019 levels in 2024. 

That being said, it is very uneven. There are some standout great examples like the Maldives —  they expect to have 90 percent higher international visitor arrivals versus 2019 this year already.  playing it this year. already. 

So our goal at PATA is to help the destinations find those best practices, find ways to either identify new source markets as they wait for their prior source markets to open up or evolve their marketing communications, and what are the best practices with respect to health and safety protocols to make it a smooth journey for the incoming customer. We’re looking for the fastest routes to bring the business back. 

Skift: You are the first female CEO of the Pacific Asia Travel Association. There’s a lot on your plate right now, but at some point, is it also part of your mission to push for more female leadership in tourism in the region?

Ortiguera: One of the approaches I’ve taken — because we have such great platforms at PATA to reach out to the industry — is to really try and find that balance of diversity and inclusion in terms of who’s represented whenever we do our webinars, we do our conferences. I think that’s important. And also, I have met just in the last six months great female travel leaders in other associations, corporations and organizations, and we’re all advocates for that. Tomorrow in fact, I’m speaking to Sabre’s Women’s Network to give them advice. Our industry, in our region particularly, has 60 percent women in travel and tourism, but at the most senior levels it dwindles down to 3 percent. And I think there are great opportunities for talent.

Tags: asia pacific, liz ortiguera, pacific asia travel association, pata, vaccine equity

Photo credit: PATA CEO Liz Ortiguera is leading on several initiatives to restart tourism equitably in Asia. Nikki Navio / Flickr Commons