Comment: Coronavirus – what is the true impact?

World Travel & Tourism Council (WTTC) president and chief executive Gloria Guevara calls for calm amid the coronavirus outbreak to stop panic becoming as contagious as the virus itself.

It’s too early to say what the final impact of the coronavirus outbreak will be – or how long it will last. The daily deluge of statistics about its spread can be enough to unsettle even the strongest among us.

However, what previous outbreaks have shown is that cool heads in the travel and tourism sector rule the day and we should guard against allowing panic and unwarranted concern to be as contagious as the virus itself.

We have to work to prevent Chinese and Asian tourists from being stigmatised. Stopping the spread of the coronavirus is the priority but it will not be achieved by alienating the world’s biggest tourist group through misguided actions, no matter how well-meaning.

We want to encourage travel, not restrain it. While we understand natural concern about the virus, it is still safe for people to travel and book to visit unaffected areas in southeast Asia and the Far East.

Remarkable resilience

The travel and tourism sector has in the past demonstrated remarkable resilience under the pressure of similar threats, not least major viral outbreaks. This ability to bounce back has improved significantly in recent years. WTTC research shows the average recovery time from crises has decreased from 26 months to 10 months between 2001 and 2018.

As former tourism minister of Mexico, I experienced this firsthand and was closely involved with the aftermath and recovery of the H1N1 influenza virus outbreak throughout 2009 and 2010. It had a major impact on Mexico’s economy and sadly led to a number of fatalities.

Despite this, Mexico was able to recover and prosper – thanks to the public and private sector working together in close partnership. There are clear lessons learned from this and the 2003 SARS outbreak in China, such as swifter action addressing the crisis and working more closely with other nations.

In addition, one major difference since then is the phenomenal growth and impact of the Chinese travel sector. Chinese tourists, travelling both individually and within groups, account for 16% of the world’s international travel spending.

More widely, Asia has experienced a booming average annual growth rate of nearly 7% in the sector over the last decade. But the withdrawal of Chinese tourists will heavily impact the economies of popular nearby destinations, such as Thailand, Japan, Singapore, South Korea, as well as the USA, UK and France in Europe as example.

99% cases confined to China

WTTC statistics show Chinese outbound travel and tourism spending has grown sevenfold in the last ten years, with a staggering annual growth of 21.7%. Each year the global travel and tourism sector contributes 10.4% (US$8.8 trillion) to global GDP and one in 10 jobs.

The UK and Europe has also seen an increasing reliance upon high-spending Chinese tourists and the huge growth of Chinese group travel. While the market for inbound Chinese tourists in Q1 is relatively soft, there is undeniable concern about Q2 prospects if the virus continues to spread.

However, while more than 42,000 people have tested positive with the coronavirus worldwide, and fatalities have reached over 1,000, we must remember that 99% of cases are confined to China.

This may show the spread of the virus is being effectively curtailed. Action by the Chinese authorities and proactive initiatives by airlines and hotels suspending flights and bookings to affected areas, as well as offering flexible future travel options, may be paying off.

Furthermore, as the virus has progressed, the private sector has stepped up and is working closely with governments around the world to contain the virus

Travel and tourism to and from China brings huge cultural and economic benefits to the world. At WTTC, we believe the sector is a force for good and unites people no matter where they are from.

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