COVID crisis will still hurt air transport well beyond 2021 and that will have wider repercussions for travel and tourism

The impact of the novel coronavirus pandemic on air travel will still be deeply felt in 2021 and that will have wider impacts far beyond just the air transport sector. This was emphasised by International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) secretary general Dr Fang Liu, who drew attention to the fundamental synergies between aviation and tourism in the opening ceremony of the UN World Tourism Organization (UNWTO) Regional Office for the Middle East.

Highlighting how ICAO and UNWTO cooperation has delivered socio-economic benefits to countries all over the world, she noted that aviation connectivity among nations has established a critical foundation for tourism markets and value chains, with well over half of the world’s 1.5 billion tourists pre-pandemic travelling by air, generating some USD900 billion in global GDP each year.

Aviation directly supports 15 of the 17 UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) under Agenda 2030, but it also indirectly supports them through its important impacts on tourism development. “By accelerating aviation innovations in digitisation, unmanned aerial vehicles, and AI and blockchain applications, we’re able to drive critical efficiencies and improve our sector’s capabilities to generate economic growth, create jobs, and facilitate trade and tourism,” Dr Liu noted.

Aviation has a vital role to play in the world’s recovery from a crisis that has been felt unanimously by counties whether big or small. There is no arguing that air transport is an important enabler to achieving economic growth and development as it facilitates integration into the global economy and provides vital connectivity on a national, regional, and international scale. Therefore securing the return of that network of links that has given us all the freedom to travel is vital for industries far beyond just the aviation sector.

The impact of COVID-19 remains a significant threat, but there is increasing evidence that is slipping down our list of worries as government actions and vaccination drives mean the risks are reducing and outbreaks are being better managed, even those of mutated forms of the coronavirus that have caused particular concern of late.

One example comes from Medjet, the air medical transport and crisis response membership for travellers, where a poll has shown that the majority of its members are now less concerned about COVID-19 than about other health and safety risks while travelling. In fact, risks travellers have traditionally been concerned with, such as strokes, heart problems, accidents and falls, as well as concerns about crime, beat out COVID-19 concerns 75% to 25% .

The survey, conducted in the middle of May-2021 of nearly 1,200 Medjet members throughout the US, Canada and Mexico, provides an interesting snapshot of travellers’ comfort level as vaccinations take hold and the strong sentiment to resume travelling.

Nine in ten (89.8%) respondents said they planned to travel this summer with a similar number (90.7%) highlighting that vaccinations are the driver of sentiment with that high majority of Medjet’s members saying they would feel safer traveling domestically and internationally once vaccinated.

The survey follows the accepted wisdom on the recovery with around three in four of those travelling (72.4%) planning domestic travel, around one in five (21%) planning both domestic and international travel, and a much smaller proportion (6.4%) planning international only. Of those travelling, more than half (57.2%) intended to board aeroplanes.

As Medjet CEO Mike Hallman discusses, the research “shows that more than we think is ‘back to normal,” with travellers “back to thinking about all the other things that can happen to them on a trip”.

These findings may add further hope to the recovery process, but with so many factors playing a role in that journey, it remains a complicated scenario. Travel may not return to any semblance of normality until the whole world is vaccinated against COVID-19, a view that has been reinforced by Dr Taleb Rifai, chairman ITIC and former secretary general of the United Nations World Tourism Organisation (UNWTO).

Speaking at the Arabian Travel Market, he said: “Countries can’t keep doing their own thing on their own. It’s not going to work. He noted “it will take the world five years for 70% of the population to be vaccinated,” and as such “no travel is going to start until the whole world is vaccinated”. While we may have pockets of travel, he outlined: “You cannot have Europe vaccinated and Africa not vaccinated. It’s a matter of how equal we are.”

The International Air Transport Association (IATA) remain optimistic that global passenger numbers will surpass pre-COVID-19 levels in 2023 and a longer-term projection with Tourism Economics suggests annual growth at beyond 3% per year beyond the decade provided the industry sees stability. What is clear is that the path to recovery is more labyrinth than highway and that means repercussions far beyond air transport for the short-term.

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