ZURAB POLOLIKASHVILI

Greece ‘in the lead’ in the new tourism era, UNWTO chief tells Kathimerini

greece-in-the-lead-in-the-new-tourism-era-unwto-chief-tells-kathimerini

At a time when everyone in the world is eager to get back to traveling, Greece has taken “up a leadership role in ensuring that the country is ready to welcome tourists back safely and responsibly,” United Nations World Tourism Organization Secretary-General Zurab Pololikashvili tells Kathimerini.

The head of the UNWTO – a specialized agency of the United Nations – who is expected in Athens today for the 66th meeting of the organization’s Commission for Europe, also notes that Greece could benefit significantly from the digital green certificate facilitating the free and safe passage of travelers in the European Union.

Moreover, he talks about the profound crisis the global tourism industry was plunged into by the pandemic, but also the need for challenges to be turned into opportunities, while stressing the aspiration for the development of more sustainable and responsible tourism.

greece-in-the-lead-in-the-new-tourism-era-unwto-chief-tells-kathimerini0How has the pandemic impacted the tourism industry on a global scale?

2020 ended with tourism suffering the greatest crisis on record: International tourist arrivals plunged by 74% over the previous year due to widespread travel restrictions and a massive drop in demand. In Europe arrivals declined by 70%, representing over 500 million fewer international tourists. The collapse in international travel represents an estimated loss of US$1.3 trillion in export revenues – more than 11 times the loss recorded during the 2009 global economic crisis. And over 120 million direct tourism jobs are at risk globally, with half this only in Europe.

What is your sense with respect to its effect on Greece?

The Greek government has taken up a leadership role in ensuring that the country is ready to welcome tourists back safely and responsibly as soon as the epidemiological conditions allow it. People all around the globe want to travel again. There is evidently strong, pent-up demand for tourism. And the positive messaging we have seen coming from Greece will go a long way toward restoring confidence in international travel, a key consideration at this moment in time after the measures that have been in place for over a year have put travelers’ trust to the challenge. The progress the international community has made in coordinating health and safety protocols will also play a crucial role in this process.

How do you assess Greece’s prospects? The government expects tourist arrivals this year to reach half the levels seen in 2019.

Greece could be one of the main destinations to benefit from the planned launch of the digital green certificate to facilitate free and safe movement within the European Union. The determination and most importantly thorough preparation will also provide a boost for the tourism sector ahead of the peak summer season.

What steps could Greece take to increase its chances of a return to a robust growth in tourism?

Now, more than ever, sustainability, responsibility and innovation must be our driving forces for a responsible recovery of the tourism sector from the Covid-19 crisis. To build back better and to underpin the resilience of the tourism sector. The Covid-19 global pandemic has caused unprecedented socioeconomic impacts, but most importantly has raised our awareness of the role sustainability needs to play in our everyday life and economic activities. Innovation has shown to be the key for a true upturn because it can benefit numerous areas, from the digital ecosystem to the skills gap, from education to finance.

Greece is in the lead also for a great focus on product development, from rural tourism to mountains, showing its leadership within the United Nations World Tourism Organization (UNWTO) network along the important objectives of diversification and enlargement of season.

More than 60 cruise ships are expected to sail around Greece this year. Numerous American airlines are moving ahead with direct flights from US destinations to Greece. What could prove the most crucial sector / factor for Athens this summer?

Outdoor, slow, rural tourism – these are probably the main niche products that have the potential to experience strong growth in the aftermath of the pandemic, with travelers more inclined to seek less crowded places. But traditionally strong products – like cruise tourism that you mentioned – have all the knowledge and the expertise needed to show that they too can ensure a safe and meaningful experiences, rebuild the trust of the visitors and truly transform this situation into an opportunity for a future growth.

Will the so-called “green passport” for vaccinated travelers influence tourism, and, if so, how?

The EU Digital Green Certificate will restore free movement and facilitate cross-border travel by providing a seamless solution for the travelers to demonstrate that they have either been vaccinated against Covid-19, tested negative for infection or recovered from the disease. This makes it non-discriminatory and provides travelers with a certain degree of freedom of choice. It is a result of coordination and cooperation at an intergovernmental level, the importance of which UNWTO has been emphasizing from the very beginning of the pandemic.

What are the main issues and goals of the 66th meeting of the UNWTO Commission for Europe, which will be held in Athens?

The Regional Commission is the statutory meeting of the region of Europe and it comes at a very crucial moment for the tourism industry. We are proud to have joined forces with our Greek hosts to record the highest level of member-states’ representatives for a Regional Commission in the history of UNWTO with over 14 ministers, six deputy ministers and four secretaries of state. And also the European Commission coming as a special guest… more to come. In the Commission we will obviously discuss all matters related to the region within UNWTO’s scope of activities and we expect a fruitful discussion.

Also, thanks to our strong partnership with Cruise Lines International Association (CLIA), we will be organizing a first-of-a-kind, high-level conference on sustainable coastal and maritime tourism in the Mediterranean, where we will debate the most pressing and contemporary sustainability issues of coastal and maritime tourism, including cruise tourism. The future of these significant subsectors will be examined through the kaleidoscope of the UN Sustainable Development Goals and will shed light on the challenges and opportunities presented for the economy, the environment, and the local societies involved.

How can we achieve sustainable and responsible tourism?

Sustainable tourism development takes full account of its current and future economic, social and environmental impacts to guarantee the needs of visitors, the industry, the environment and host communities are met.

Sustainable tourism should always seek a suitable balance between making optimal use of environmental resources, respecting the socio-cultural authenticity of host communities and ensuring viable, long-term economic operations that provide socioeconomic benefits to all tourism stakeholders. This balance almost naturally leads also to a high level of tourist satisfaction by ensuring a meaningful experience to the tourists.

Sustainability needs to become an action, beyond the meaning of the word. An action corroborated by commitment to a focused measurement of results and true dedication to implementation.

Covid-19 in this sense has to be transformed into an opportunity and we must not miss it… to really make the future of tourism (and of our lives) more sustainable.