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April 20, 2020

Expert Says Impact of COVID-19 On Travel and Tourism Industry Will be Worse than 9/11 and SARS

The impact of COVID-19 has been particularly disastrous for the travel and tourism industries. According to the the World Travel & Tourism Council (WTTC), up to 50 million jobs in the travel and tourism sector are at risk due to the COVID-19 pandemic and global travel could be adversely impacted by up to 25% in 2020 -- equivalent to a loss of three months of global travel.

Zongqing Zhou, PhD, professor at the College of Hospitality and Tourism Management of Niagara University, says 

"the impact of COVID-19 is going to be more lasting and game-changing" for the country's airlines than even 9/11 and the previous SARS outbreak."

"In the case of 9/11, people felt safe enough to take part in everyday activities, including travel, as long as they witnessed active security measures," said Dr. Zhou

"In the case of SARS, it was not as deadly and contagious as COVID-19 and, importantly, there was a vaccine. As soon as SARS was defeated, people felt safe to travel again," said Dr. Zhou. 

"However, COVID-19 is different: it is much more contagious, more dangerous, more widespread, and there is no vaccine yet. Even after we pass the apex and the number of new cases is reduced to zero, people will still be conscious of a potential second wave. Travel would still be considered unsafe and people might still want to avoid crowds, inevitably prolonging the economic impact on the travel and tourism industries."

Dr. Zhou, who also serves as the president of the International Society of Travel and Tourism Educators (ISTTE), says  although it is hard to predict how long international travel restrictions will be in place as the rate of new COVID-19 infections decreases, he believes we can look at China and the city of Wuhan as a guideline.

"I believe all countries should study China's experience closely and implement similar measures," says Dr. Zhou. "The city of Wuhan was locked down for more than two months -- 76 days to be exact -- along with the rest of China.

"Before reopening Wuhan, other cities in China started to loosen their travel restrictions to allow people to go back to work. However, the country also placed tight restrictions on incoming international visitors, implementing a procedure of temperature checking, and 14-day quarantine periods before any visitor could freely enter China. In addition, China only allowed direct international flights to safe cities and destinations, avoiding transfers to reduce the chances of virus contamination during transit."

Despite the bleak outlook, all hope is not lost. In fact, Dr. Zhou says "the travel and tourism industry is the critical player in re instituting the sense of safety and security in the minds of the travelers and customers."

Dr. Zhou outlined a few measures he would take if he were the CEO of a travel, tourism, or hospitality company:

  1. Hire a "CSO": Chief Safety Officer. This CSO must be an expert in public health and public security.
  2. Make public safety and security the centerpiece of management, marketing and promotion.
  3. Provide assurances that all customers will be well-protected within its properties or destinations, such as providing free or next to free masks, sanitation equipment, and local hospital connections if needed.
  4. Create innovative programs and events focusing on social distancing, such as "controlled crowd traveling", private group traveling, family traveling, limited group size tours, and special, small group dining experiences.
  5. Add "crisis forbearance" to the loyalty program. Loyal program customers are automatically protected from any losses due to a crisis like COVID-19. For example, any booked flight, hotel, tour, meal, or cruise will be automatically refunded or extended for at least another year based on customers' preferences.

"COVID-19 is certainly going to be a game changer for the travel and tourism industry," says Dr. Zhou. "Those who can learn from this experience and implement changes in the future will be the winners; those who keep doing the same old business will be left in the dust."