Experts back EESC proposals to kickstart Europe's tourist industry post-COVID

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Key stakeholders of Europe's tourism sector speaking in a debate at the EESC February plenary expressed support for the measures called for by a new EESC report to revive and future-proof the industry.

"How can we create a more resilient, innovative and sustainable tourism ecosystem?" was the title of a debate hosted by the EESC plenary on 23 February.

EESC President Christa Schweng opened the debate recalling that before COVID-19, the sector accounted for nearly 10% of the EU's GDP and some 22.6 million jobs, making the EU the world's leading tourism destination.

With COVID, however, mobility and tourism patterns have changed and the tourist industry will need to adapt. SMEs in particular, which make up 99.8% of all businesses, have been slow in going digital and suffer from a lack of skills, finance and infrastructure. They also lack awareness of the benefits of the green and digital transition.

Pre-pandemic tourism will not come back. Global interdependency and greener, more digital trends in consumer behaviour will determine new business models, said Ms Schweng. This is why we need to develop a smart, sustainable and responsible long-term strategy for European tourism, with new, targeted policies, financial resources and investments. The objective is to come up with a tourism and transport business model that is fit for the new demands of the global market and changing lifestyles.

Martha Schultz, managing director of the Schultz Group – one of Austria's largest hospitality operators, Vice-President of EUROCHAMBRES and of the Austrian Federal Economic Chamber, spelled out what she believed to be the key lessons of the COVID-19 experience to build a successful, pandemic-proof tourism industry in the future:

  • Having clear legislation in place to avoid the uncertainty and changing rules that had made it extremely difficult to conduct business during COVID-19;
  • Focusing on innovation. Now, for instance, companies needed to meet a growing demand for hybrid conferences. Teleworking from a hotel bar would have been inconceivable a couple of years ago; now it was all the rage.
  • Ensuring that people can travel freely and safely.
  • Avoiding uncontrolled tourism flows and over-tourism through data.
  • Attracting talented people again following the reputational damage suffered by the sector and training young people to bring new blood to the industry.
  • Ensuring economic support and liquidity.

There should be two main priorities: supporting SME digitalisation so they can be more present online and promoting sustainable projects", she said. "From the point of view of the business community, it is important to see sustainability in particular as a competitive advantage.

Alberto Corti, head of tourism at the Italian General Confederation of Enterprises, Professions and Self-Employment Confcommercio-Imprese per l'Italia - the largest body representing the tourism sector in Italy, focused on the three key concepts at the heart of the debate – resilience, innovation and sustainability.

As regards resilience, he stressed that the tourist industry had given ample proof of its resilience by bouncing back from a number of crises - the Gulf War in 1990, the terrorist attack on the Twin Towers in 2001, the SARS epidemic in 2003, the tsunami in Indonesia in 2004 and the financial crisis in 2007-2008.

He also underlined that the clear correlation between a country's dependence on tourism and its GDP worked both positively and negatively. While the countries most heavily dependent on tourism at the start of the pandemic had lost the most GDP during COVID-19, this could be turned upside down.

If we think about the effect that, for example, Next Generation EU will have through the National Recovery and Resilience Plans, then perhaps we can imagine that, if we make our economies more "tourism-centric", the effect, in terms of recovering lost GDP, will be just as strong", he said. "Tourism can really drive the recovery of the economy as a whole.

Kerstin Howald, political secretary of the European Federation of Trade Unions in the Food, Agriculture and Tourism sectors - an organisation representing the interests of some 25 million workers - said her organisation supported the EESC's proposals to shore up Europe's ailing tourist industry but believed they were slightly weak on social aspects and employment issues.

"What concerns us most is that we see the loss of millions of jobs in the sector - currently the estimate is that more than 9% of all jobs in Europe were lost. Linked to this, we see that, as the recovery starts slowly, tourism businesses really have difficulties recruiting staff", she said. "We think that the most important thing to make tourism more sustainable and resilient in the future is to put workers and quality jobs first. We need to make sure that workers are at the centre of our measures and that they are really respected and valued for their contribution. This goes hand in hand with good working conditions."

MEP Claudia Monteiro De Aguiar, author of the European Parliament report "Establishing an EU strategy for sustainable tourism", recalled the role of tourism as a force for peace and mutual understanding in these troubled times of tension at Europe's borders. Looking at the state of play of EU initiatives in favour of tourism, she expressed full support for Mr Gkofas' work, which was very much aligned with the European Parliament's position.

The European Parliament and the EESC are on the same page. Joining forces, seeking a robust tourism policy in the EU is crucial. All together, we can make the difference. Together, let's make the conversation about our tourism industry heard. Together, we need to convince the governments of our countries that tourism matters.

The debate was linked to the adoption of an EESC report on how to rebuild tourism and transport in Europe after COVID-19.

We need a new Marshall Plan to help Europe's tourism industry surviveto save our companies and our staff," says EESC rapporteur Panagiotis Gkofas, "This is what the EESC plan is all about.

The report, drawn up by Panagiotis Gkofas, recommends a series of key short-, medium- and long-term measures to see the industry through the crisis, among them:

  • making SMEs in the hotel, restaurant and catering sectors a priority of the National Recovery and Resilience Plans,
  • having a specific budget for tourism at EU level,
  • extending the SURE scheme for 2022,
  • postponing SMEs' tax liabilities
  • integrating tourism industry SMEs into the banking system and financial sector through EU guarantee schemes.

The EESC report on tourism and transport, which is a follow-up to an earlier opinion adopted in September 2020, will shortly be available on the EESC website.