Tourism, a critical segment of the global economy, accounts for 10 percent of economic activity worldwide, and provides 330 million jobs.
That’s at least 15 percent of all the jobs in more than a quarter of the world’s nations.
Now, with the world in the grips of the ever-expanding COVID-19 pandemic, tourist destinations have restricted or banned entry, international flights have been reduced or grounded entirely, and tourism infrastructure has been largely shut down.
Larger countries are not so dependent, but with 15.5 percent of the Mexican GDP provided by tourism, and Spain close behind at 14.3 percent, the cost of lost visitors is astronomical.
Even the United States will feel the impacts on an industry that contributes $1.8 trillion — or 8.6 percent — to its GDP.
Yet, with the virus resurgent in the United States and elsewhere, huge numbers of service workers in the tourist industry — many of whom are “informal” workers living precariously — remain out of work.
Source: Visual Capitalist
Living, and traveling, in a bubble
“Travel bubbles,” which enable travel within countries and between neighboring nations, are now emerging as a solution for some regional economies, as nations around the world head into peak travel season.
Yet the resurgence and persistence of the virus have Thailand and Hong Kong both putting their plans on a travel bubble on hold.
Meanwhile, Australia and New Zealand have cautious plans to permit between the two nations on a state-by-state basis.
Fiji is eager to join the “trans-tasman” bubble by expanding it into a “bula bubble” — the term “bula” playing off a Fijian greeting.
Malaysia also wants to get into the game, joining, if it can, the Aussie-Kiwi travel zone, and creating “green lanes” with Singapore and Brunei as well.
Europe comprises a big bubble, and is limiting entry as a bloc to travelers from “safe” countries — which does not include the United States.
Small, tropical island nations are acutely dependent on tourism — and Antigua and Barbuda are the most extreme examples.
Tourism in each of the Caribbean nation’s two namesake islands provides over 90 percent of all jobs.
The larger Caribbean region’s numerous tiny island nations and territories are also suffering grave economic damage from the evaporation of visitors and the disappearance of cruise ships.
Dominica and St. Lucia have laid off or furloughed the vast majority of their work forces, and funds for the unemployed are diminishing without expected tax revenue from tourism.
Hopes that visitors from the United States are now in question, as Americans desperation for beach vacations must content with surging virus infections at home.
Another looming threat facing the region is the 2020 hurricane season, which is right around the corner.
Asia Pacific: Job losses and unauthorized workers
Paralleling the Caribbean, many Asia-Pacific island nations seem to have largely avoided the worst of COVID-19, but have been devastated by the loss of employment from the tourism sector.
Before the pandemic, in 2018 alone, the region received 348 million tourists, with countries like Fiji, Tonga, Samoa, Vanuatu, and the Maldives critically dependent on it.
The International Labor Organization reports that 15.3 million jobs have been affected, with tourist numbers at zero over the last few months.
This, in a region where over 75 percent of those employed in the tourism sector are informal, unlicensed, or otherwise unauthorized to work — and are therefore lacking access to social safety-net services.
Source: Global Citizen (advocacy group)
Costa Rica: Hopes dashed
Amidst the devastation, one democratic country’s citizens have banded together to combat COVID-19.
But initial success in containing the virus appear to have faltered.
COVID-19 infections were around 500 total nationwide back in May, but since then have exploded to more than 6,000.
Costa Rica is largely dependent on tourism, with an economy sufficiently developed that few “Ticos” have needed to emigrate to find jobs, in contrast to neighboring countries in Central America.
From this position of relative economic security, Costa Rica initially benefited from a more economically secure population that follows public health guidelines, and was a leader in contact tracing.
Civic-minded citizens and companies also engaged in “pandemic volunteerism” to help those at risk.
This includes a rental-car company that used its idle fleet to deliver diabetes and blood pressure medication to the elderly.
Now, the Central American nation faces a deepening test of its social and medical institutions.
Bhutan: High altitude, higher hopes
The tiny, impoverished Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan, with a geographic isolation approaching that of an island country, also seems to have been able to effectively limit the virus, with just a handful of cases, and no deaths.
This is no mean feat for a place with limited resources — and a geographic exposure to India and China, a returning student population, and economic dependence on Chinese tourists.
The entire country of 750,000 has only 300 doctors, little in the way of personal protective equipment and gear, and virtually no ventilators.
But healthcare is free for all, and a science-based approach has guided Bhutan’s national emergency response.
This, built on the country’s famous “Gross National Happiness” mantra, has enabled widespread testing, quarantining for re-entries from abroad, contact tracing after the first case was diagnosed, and borders that have remained mostly closed.
But Bhutanese were not subjected to harsh say-at-home “lockdown” orders, unlike neighboring countries.
This ongoing success has led to speculation that Bhutan is ready to welcome tourists.
So far, this is not happening.
Bhutan’s Tourism Director General Dorji Dhradhul said that essentially no tourists will arrive this year, and perhaps only a few thousand will come next year.
He thinks that the industry will only return to pre-COVID numbers by 2025.
Additional writing by Joshua Wilson