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UN tourism body joins call against blanket travel restrictions

Short on time? Here are the highlights:

  • Leading global bodies for public health and international tourism are arguing against blanket travel restrictions
  • They propose instead that any travel restrictions be targeted and evidence-based, in part because of the important of international travel to the global economy and to economic recovery following the pandemic

The latest data release from the UN World Tourism Organization (UNWTO) finds that global tourism experienced a modest 4% increase in 2021, for a total of 415 million travellers during the year (versus 400 million in 2020). It is fair to say, however, that 2020 is a poor reference point: it stands as the worst year on record for global tourism with a year-over-year decline in international arrivals of 73% from pre-pandemic levels.

Another recent UN report, meanwhile, points out that the global economic recovery is in danger of losing momentum this year due to persistent labour market gaps, continuing supply chain issues, and rising inflation. After expanding by 5.5% in 2021, the global economy is projected to grow by only 4% in 2022 and 3.5% in 2023, says the 2022 edition of the United Nations World Economic Situation and Prospects Report, which was released last month.

The scale and pace of recovery in international tourism will figure prominently in real economic growth this year. “Given its importance as a major export category (prior to the pandemic tourism was the third largest in the world, after fuels and chemicals), and recognizing its role as a source of employment and economic development, the sector’s recovery is expected to drive growth in every world region,” says the UNWTO.

Those findings provide the backdrop for another recent statement from the world travel body, which, has added its voice to the growing calls – including most notably from the World Health Organization (WHO) – for an end to blanket travel restrictions. The WHO has puts its concerns about blanket restrictions on the record, most recently at its 19 January meetings in Geneva, saying that they can cause economic and social harm while also discouraging “transparent and rapid reporting of emerging Variants of Concern”.

“It is imperative we restart tourism and so kickstart recovery and get back on track towards meeting the [UN Sustainable Development Goals],” said UNWTO Secretary-General Zurab Pololikashvili. “When it comes to stopping the spread of new virus variants, blanket travel restrictions are simply counterproductive. In fact, by cutting the lifeline of tourism, these restrictions do more harm than good, especially in destinations reliant on international tourists for jobs, economic wellbeing and sustainable change.”

The WHO International Health Regulations (IHR) Emergency Committee on COVID-19, argues that all limits on international travel should be based on “risk assessments – including testing, isolation, and vaccinations”.

“As countries ease travel restrictions, health must remain the key priority. By basing their decisions on evidence and a risk-based approach adapted to their specific context, countries can find the right balance between keeping people safe, protecting livelihoods and the economy, and keeping borders open”, said WHO Director-General Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus.

While the situation has eased in the months since, the most recent UNWTO summary, published at the end of November 2021, found that one out of five destinations had their borders completely closed at that point, and that 98% of all destinations were then maintaining some level of travel restrictions. Also at the time of that report, only four destinations worldwide – Colombia, Costa Rica, Dominican Republic, and Mexico – had lifted all COVID-19-related restrictions completely.

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