World tourism crippled by four horsemen

  • 2003-05-22
  • Don Hill

The tourism and travel industry has good reason for wishing it could have taken a vacation this year and last. With war, disease and an economic turndown, this has been a horrid time for the travel business, which reportedly accounts for 10 percent of the gross world product and employs some 200 million people.

The message, however, among delegates at the Third Global Travel and Tourism Summit, last week in Vilamoura, Portugal, was decidedly upbeat.

It was the first major meeting of the industry's leaders since the outbreak in China last year of severe acute respiratory syndrome. A worldwide scare over the flulike disease effectively dampened a hoped-for post-Iraq-war resurgence of travel demand already weakened by terrorism and limping economies.

David Tarsh, an official of the World Travel and Tourism Council, the event's organizers, alluded to a frightening biblical passage to describe the state of international tourism.

"I think it's really suffered from the four horsemen of the apocalypse, really, with the economic downturn, with war, with increased visibility of terrorism, and with the media hysteria about SARS," he said.

Tarsh stressed that what happens to tourism is more than the concern merely of a few tour companies and hotels and the occasional enterprising taxi driver.

"Travel and tourism accounts for over 10 percent of world GDP, and it accounts for nearly $4 trillion of world GDP, which is very substantial," he said.

"That number will be dipping as a consequence of what we've seen happening in the world this year."

Given the impact of terrorism, war and troubled economies, conference guests in Vilamoura particularly lamented the SARS scare. Tarsh even spoke of "media hysteria."

Some participants were even more vocal, complaining of what they call "overreaction" by the World Health Organization in issuing worldwide warnings against travel to SARS hot spots like Hong Kong and Beijing and even, for a time, Toronto.

They said that, while the number of cases sounds large, a person anywhere in the world is 240 times more likely to die today of a road accident than a traveler in China is to contract SARS.

The WHO defended its warnings, however. Spokeswoman Christine McNab said that the WHO's actions may be keeping the threat from becoming a catastrophe.

"I think that when we look at the issue of SARS, we've seen a newly emerging public health threat. We saw how fast it could travel," McNab said.

"You know, people who were infected with SARS who got on planes did bring it to other countries."

When the prophets at last week's travel summit looked at China, they saw a picture different from that of the public health guardians. They saw a potential market looming larger than any threat.

One participant acknowledged that China was a developing, not a developed, economy, few of whose nearly 1.3 billion people have the yuan, the Chinese currency, for international travel.

But, he said, if only 1 percent of mainland Chinese could be persuaded to vacation abroad, the impact on the travel industry would be immense.

Another bright spot, participants said, are European sun-spot destinations like Portugal and Croatia. Prosperous European travelers - Germans, British, Italians - seeking nearby locations perceive resorts like Croatia's Dubrovnik and Vilamoura as both secure and enticing.

These perceptions, and careful promotion campaigns, have enabled such places to defy the tourism downturn elsewhere in the world.

Constantino Jordan, an officer and owner of Vilamoura's Lusotur company, said the point of last week's meeting was to recognize such opportunities. "At this moment, very [long-distance] traveling is not sought-after, because the times have been very insecure and uncertain."

Jordan added, "What we're here for today is to discuss ways to overcome the situation which the industry itself is not responsible for - and to discuss ways to motivate people to go back and travel."

Said Tarsh, "The basic thrust is that consumers want to travel."

He said that the conference this year was concentrating on how to rebuild and revitalize the tourism industry. Experience convinces its leaders that people all over the world remain interested in traveling.

The challenge for the business is to tap that interest and persuade potential travelers that it is desirable and safe.

"It's clear that there is a demand there and a strong interest in traveling. So the key for this event is to try to come up with a blueprint for new tourism, to find strategies to help the industry grow, to look at what consumers will really want in terms of the future and how consumers will change, you know, what the characteristics will be of the traveler tomorrow rather than the traveler today," Tarsh said.

"And how can the industry then try to reorient itself to meet those needs."