Innovation seen as key to boosting tourism recovery

Tourists walk near Horse Guards Parade amid the outbreak of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) in London, Britain, on December 29, 2021. [Photo/Agencies]

The industry is urged to remain flexible and be prepared for unforeseen challenges

Innovation, technology and digitization will be key factors in rebuilding the travel, tourism and hospitality sectors as the industry recovers from the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, industry experts said.

As many countries reopen and travel rules relax, there is an opportunity to reconsider the path of travel and tourism, the experts said.

Natalia Bayona, Director of Innovation, Education and Investment at the United Nations World Tourism Organization (UNWTO), said: “COVID-19 has changed the way we think about tourism. While it was growing rapidly before the pandemic, supporting 10 percent of jobs worldwide and employing the most women and youth, it has become even more important as it leads the global recovery due to its cross-sectoral and resilient nature.”

She also said that the sector “has demonstrated its ability to adapt and evolve. For this reason, nowadays it is impossible to think about tourism without having a clear picture of innovation and technology”.

Martine Ainsworth, a destination and travel expert and director of UK consultancy Ainsworth and Wells, said that “after a pause during the pandemic, the era of cheap, mass-market travel is about to return”.

“Backlog demand will drive this at will over the summer and spend our summer holidays in the sun, (and although) the growing cost-of-living crisis, fueled by inflation and oil prices, is dampening current appetites, it will come back,” Ainsworth said.

Analysts said the industry needs to constantly evolve and investing in digital innovation and sustainability is crucial for countries reopening to travel.

Bayona, who is also an associate professor at IE University in Spain, said that while travel will not be the same as it was before the pandemic, the combination of tourism, innovation and sustainability “will continue to advance in the coming years”.

Since 2018, UNWTO has delivered more than 20 programs for innovators on topics ranging from sustainability and data-driven decision-making in travel destinations to decarbonization and economic participation of local communities.

Bayona also said that small and medium-sized businesses, which make up 85 percent of tourism businesses, need to accelerate the transition to digitization.

To help these companies, UNWTO will soon launch the Digital Futures for SMEs program, which aims to accelerate the digitization of entrepreneurs, especially in the areas of connectivity, business growth, e-commerce, big data and analytics, as well as payments and security.

“Free access to hands-on training through any of these pathways and the opportunity to gain hands-on experience with technology tools will help build resilience,” Bayona said.

Education in this sector is another challenge, as tourism education programs lack a strong focus on entrepreneurship and innovation, she said.

To meet this challenge, UNWTO created Tourism Online Academy, a platform to promote education with affordable online courses from the best universities in the world.

Ainsworth, the advisory director, said travel should no longer be taken for granted as it appears more expensive even as people’s disposable income is reduced.

“The pandemic has reminded us that travel is a luxury. … It can be stopped as quickly as it started. We should carefully plan where we travel and make sure we have Plan B insurance or reimbursement policies in place, for example. should events occur that prohibit us from travel,” she said.

The industry must also remain flexible and be prepared for unforeseen challenges, Ainsworth said.

“We’ve seen in (the UK) one sector struggling to quickly ramp up staffing due to the sudden release in travel demand – they weren’t expecting such a spike in demand,” she said. “There were long delays at Manchester Airport, for example. They didn’t have enough staff at the airport to handle the number of customers. They had to lay off staff because of the pandemic and not travel to recruit in time for the restart.”

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