The world is starting to open up as countries ease lockdowns – a positive move, but the change still remains negligible against a backdrop of travel restrictions

2 June, 2020

The world is slowly opening up again, new research from the World Tourism Organization (UNWTO) indicates, with destinations cautiously easing travel restrictions introduced in response to Covid-19.

As the United Nations specialised agency has released its Global Guidelines for Reopening Tourism, signalling a transition into gearing up for stronger and better recovery, it says that 3% of all global destinations have now taken steps to ease travel restrictions. These are the seven nations of Croatia, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, South Sudan, Tanzania and Tunisia.

UNWTO has been monitoring the global response to Covid-19 since the start of the pandemic. The fourth edition of its Covid-19 Related Travel Restrictions: A Global Review for Tourism report, released at the end of May-2020, again looked at the measures of 217 destinations worldwide as of 18 May 2020.

At that time the research shows that seven destinations have eased travel restrictions for international tourism purposes with several more destinations engaged "in significant discussions about the re-opening of borders" and which have subsequently eased restrictions.

However, caution remains with 100% of all destinations worldwide continuing to have some form of Covid-19-related travel restrictions in place. Furthermore, as of that mid-May date 75% continued to have their borders completely closed for international tourism. In more than a third of all cases (37%), travel restrictions have been in place for 10 weeks, while around a quarter (24%) have had restrictions in place for 14 weeks or more.

CHART - The types of travel restrictions related to Covid-19 vary by destinationSource: UNWTO

"The timely and responsible easing of travel restrictions will help ensure the many social and economic benefits that tourism guarantees will return in a sustainable way," says UNWTO secretary general, Zurab Pololikashvili, but he remarks that there remains a need for vigilance, responsibility and international cooperation as the world slowly opens up again."

Mr Pololikashvili also welcomed the growing confidence in the global tourism sector, noting it stands ready to return to growth. While tourism has been the hardest hit of all the world's major economic sectors, UNWTO has led a joint response and last week released its Global Guidelines to Reopen Tourism. These guidelines outline the steps governments and the private sector can take to accelerate recovery in the months ahead.

Looking into global travel restrictions more closely, the UNWTO research shows that, the more important tourism is to the economies of individual destinations, the more likely they are to have introduced complete border closures. In the case of SIDS destinations (Small Island Developing States), 85% continue to have their borders completely closed for tourism purposes.

While borders may be opening there still remains the issue of quarantine requirements. This is a subject that has particularly angered the travel and tourism sector in the UK which is due to introduce its own 14-day requirement for arrivals from this month. This is likely to impact both inbound and outbound demand at a time that the industry is looking to regain its footing as lockdown restrictions are eased.

Ryanair Holdings CEO Michael O'Leary has been particularly outspoken, but is now confident "the UK and Ireland will either quietly drop" quarantine regulation, or "drop them as another easing measure in the next week or two... I am confident of that".

European LCC Wizz Air has already proven that even with current constraints there are opportunities for development for those that are willing. The airline's CEO and founder Jozsef Varadi highlighted during a recent session in CAPA - Centre for Aviation's well-received CAPA Masterclass sessions that the airline had bullish intent to be one of the leaders in the recovery of international air transport.

This has been highlighted in the past week with the confirmation that the airline will open new bases in Albania, Italy, Cyprus and Ukraine from 01-Jul-2020, operating more than 50 new routes with 11 stationed aircraft. This comprises five new aircraft and 20 new routes in Milan Malpensa; three new aircraft and 15 new routes from Tirana; two aircraft and eleven routes from Larnaca; and one aircraft and five new routes from Lviv.

The airline's focus continues to be on the central and eastern Europe markets that have supported its previous growth, however it is also considering opportunities in western Europe, with London Gatwick certainly high on its current list. "We are one of the very few airlines in Europe which can deliver growth capacity when everyone else is cutting and contracting capacity," noted Mr Varadi.

With the fear of a second wave of infections it is understandable that travel restrictions will continue to impact international travel. But more countries are talking about 'bubbles', 'travel bridges' or 'corona corridors' that do away with any quarantine requirements for a select group of travellers from certain countries where the coronavirus has been contained. If introduced they should allow international travellers - for business or leisure - additional freedoms.