In August, Julia Simpson became CEO of the World Travel & Tourism Council (WTTC). Prior to that, she had been chief of staff for International Airlines Group, the parent company of British Airways, Iberia, Aer Lingus and Vueling. News editor Johanna Jainchill spoke to her about what will help the global travel industry rebound from the Covid-19 pandemic and why U.S. recovery is ahead of the curve.
Q: The WTTC predicted that U.S. tourism could grow 35.6% in 2021, outpacing the global tourism recovery. What is driving that?
A: Compared to last year, the U.S. looks like it’s going to grow by 36% this year and be back on track by 2022, with additional growth of about 28%. This represents $2 trillion to U.S. GDP, more than the 2019 contribution of $1.9 trillion. If there’s one thing the pandemic has taught governments globally, it’s the value of travel and tourism to their economy and to jobs. We saw 41% of that U.S. contribution just wiped off in 2020 because borders closed. Domestic spending has been strong in 2021 — up 40% — and expected to still grow in 2022. That’s one of the strengths of the U.S.: a very, very strong domestic market. International spending, because we were opening up at the back end of the year, will climb a modest 1.9%. But in 2022, we’re looking at a growth of about 225% — international spending could go up to $141 billion.
I think some of it is because there is a lot of pent-up demand to travel. I was speaking to the CEO of British Airways when it was announced that the U.S. would reopen to the U.K., and their bookings went through the roof. We’re talking about 200% up. It’s not just leisure traffic — family reunions, international students, people that have been prevented from traveling — you’ve got this big rebound we are seeing. Where we think there will be a delay is in business travel, which is definitely lagging behind leisure travel and will probably come back to full strength in 2023 or 2024.
Q: Why are other countries slower to rebound?
A: The U.K., for example, had this very chaotic “traffic light system,” where they were putting countries on a red list and banning people from traveling to the U.K., and then they would take them off the red list and then put them on the red list. It caused a lot of confusion and concern among travelers. They’ve now scrapped that system. What we’ve been arguing for a long time, which is what the U.S. is doing, is that risk should be associated with the vaccination and Covid status of travelers, as opposed to doing blanket bans on whole nations.
I think the single barrier now to people traveling is the complexity for people to travel with all the different passenger locator forms they have to complete, different kinds of vaccination certificates. What we’re calling for is a system of contactless travel. We’ve got all this data on people’s health status in regard to Covid. There’s always been data in terms of long-haul travel around security. This can now be digitized. If we can get all the countries onto one system, we could actually leapfrog a couple of generations of innovation. It’s a bit of a model at the moment, but the real opportunity is that this could speed up the process of technology and seamless travel.
Q: You come from the airline side. What will enable airlift to get to the levels necessary for travel recovery?
A: Freedom of movement between countries is critical. I think airlines are moving as quickly as they can to get aircraft that had previously been grounded back up in the air, and doing that very successfully. The only hazard ahead is if governments overcomplicate travel requirements and instead of harmonizing, if things become more complicated, that will put travelers off.
The other thing that has put off travelers is the cost of Covid testing. You shouldn’t need PCR testing as a traveler; the antigen rapid tests are highly reliable. The other thing we’re arguing for is vaccine equality. There are still 4 billion people worldwide who are not vaccinated. And at the current vaccination rate, that could take five years. As we know, what viruses love to do, they love to mutate. So none of us are really safe until we can get the whole world vaccinated.