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The Russian ‘special operation’ in Ukraine resulting global travel disruption reverses the tourism barometer once again

June Mukherjee, Kolkata, Mar 15, 2022


Just when the pandemic was calming down, and the world was thinking normalcy is returning by virtue of freedom to travel, the big stroke of military conflict between Russia and Ukraine and the subsequent attack by Russia blew the entire hope.

With the world leaders trying to diplomatically solve the issue, the deadly arms continue to fire, and bombs continue to drop over the Ukrainian civilians. Already over two million refugees have left the Ukrainian border to take shelter in Poland, Hungary, Slovakia, Moldova, Romania and even some of them to Russia. These neighbouring countries of Russia and Ukraine, especially the Eastern European ones are also being hugely affected by the evolving situation in Ukraine, especially the tourism industry.

The aggression against Ukraine is inconsistent with the United Nations Charter and contravenes the fundamental aim of the UN's tourism body, UNWTO (United Nations World Tourism Organisation) as enshrined in Article 3 of its Statutes, which states the “promotion and development of tourism with a view to contributing to economic development, international understanding, peace, prosperity and universal respect for, and observance of, human rights”, as the fundamental principles of the organisation.

Tourism is the main bridge for building understanding as it has a unique ability to promote peace between and among peoples everywhere. Visibly disturbed, the UNWTO Executive Council has decided to hold an Extraordinary UNWTO General Assembly to address the suspension of the membership of the Russian Federation. The first-ever Extraordinary UNWTO General Assembly will be convened in the coming days. This was the first time in the history of UNWTO that the Executive Council met to address a request to consider suspending a member from the organisation. Held in Madrid at the request of several UNWTO members, the Executive Council met amid ongoing global concern and condemnation for the unilateral actions of the Russian Federation. In accordance with its Statutes, the UNWTO General Assembly alone has the sovereign responsibility to decide on the suspension of membership of any member state, if it found that the member persists in a policy contrary to the fundamental aims of the organization, as enshrined in Article 3 of its Statutes.

“War is never a solution! Not now, and not ever. But it is evident that not everybody is committed to this ideal. For this reason, UNWTO must be loud and clear: If you are a member, then you commit to our rules. And you must embrace our values. So, when members go against our goals, there must be consequences,” said Zurab Pololikashvili, the UNWTO Secretary-General.

Skål International, which is world's largest association of travel industry leaders with approximately 13,000 members in one hundred countries stands strongly in favour of the use of diplomacy to avoid such conflicts and calls on all nations to use both diplomatic negotiations and the good offices of such organisations as the United Nations to resolve differences.

“Peace is the required status for global tourism to thrive in any destination. People only want to travel to places where they feel that they will be safe without the threat of danger, especially those related to any kind of conflict or potential life-threatening actions,” said Burcin Turkkan, World President, Skål International.

Skål Bucharest club in Romania is taking a lead with the support of regional associations in organising humanitarian aid for the people in need. In a recently conducted webinar on the update on Ukraine, where the attendees participated from all over the world to show solidarity to Ukraine and pray for peace, Florin Tancu, the President of Skål Bucharest urged the global travel community to help them with more resources as they are also working round the clock with limited means.

In the webinar, Ivan Liptuga, the President of Ukraine National Tourism Organisation gave a detailed first-hand account update of the ground zero. "As already two million people have left the country and a huge pressure is on the neighbouring countries to give them shelters, the upcoming work is enormous to rebuild the country when the war is over. At the moment it is a huge humanitarian issue, and any help will be appreciated. The northern cultural routes for which many international tourists visit Ukraine have been badly destroyed by the attack. Comparatively southern region has survived from the wrath. But tourism will be a key driver when the country will fight to bounce back to normalcy. And we will need support from the global tourism fraternity during this revival process. The only way I know is for the world tourism industry is to scream and to stand firm in their support for us. I don’t know what kind of sanctions may help in this situation more than they have now already. Now we need most is to close the sky above us because we can be protected if it wasn’t for the rockets that are falling like rain all over the country," said Liptuga.

Between 2014 and 2019, Ukraine experienced a robust growth in inbound tourism, with arrivals peaking at approximately 2.5 million in 2019 before falling 71% in 2020 due to the pandemic, according to GlobalData’s Tourism Demands and Flows Database.

Unfortunately, it will not just be Ukraine’s inbound travel that will suffer. Ukraine was previously one of Europe’s fastest-growing source markets, with outbound tourism increasing consistently between 2009 and 2019, a period during which trips almost doubled from 4.7 million to 9.2 million, according to GlobalData. Destinations such as Poland and Turkey could suffer, with Ukraine now unlikely to send tourists in high volume. Furthermore, the developing markets, such as Romania and Bulgaria, will also feel the pinch, as these destinations battle against a potentially turbulent year in the tourism sector.

Commenting on the situation in Ukraine, Willie Walsh, the Director-General, IATA said, "I am appalled by the unlawful invasion of Ukraine by Russia and stand in solidarity with the Ukrainian people under siege. Aviation promotes peace and freedom by bringing people together. But these last days have seen peace shattered, the human cost of which is horrifying. My heart goes out to all the people of Ukraine, including industry partners and colleagues."

Air France and Lufthansa have already ceased operations in and out of Kyiv and Odessa. If more airlines follow suit, this will not only impact Ukraine but also the entire European tourism industry. The Russian attack on Ukraine has brought back the question of safe air travel to and through Europe, adding salt to the already injured pandemic hit travel and tourism industry. The substantial number of European countries imposing sanctions on Russia and banning each other’s airlines from flying in their airspace, will disrupt the global travel for a long time for now. Recently, the European Union (EU) banned Russian aircraft from operating in its airspace. The EU Commission’s President Ursula von der Leyen confirmed such a decision.

“First, we are shutting down the EU airspace for the Russians. We are proposing a prohibition on all Russian-owned, Russian-registered, or Russian-controlled aircraft. These aircraft will no more be able to land in, take off, or overfly the territory of the EU. This will apply to any plane owned, chartered, or otherwise controlled by a Russian legal or natural person,” Von Der Leyen pointed out.
Soon after the EU’s decision, authorities in Russia also announced that they took similar moves, closing their airspace to airlines from 27 EU countries. In addition, Russian authorities announced that they closed their airspace to the following nine countries: Anguilla, Albania, Virgin Islands, Canada, Gibraltar, Jersey, Iceland, the United Kingdom, and Norway. According to an agency report, the number of flights through Kazakhstan’s airspace tripled to more than 450 recently. The decision of many European and non-European countries to ban flights from their airspace and the Russian authorities’ reciprocated move has led airlines scrambling to find which routes are feasible. To avoid Ukrainian and Russian airspace, the US airlines are now subject to long-distance flights, which results in more significant emissions and higher costs for airlines amid increasing fuel prices. Flying around Russia, the world’s largest country and a bridge between Europe and Asia, will add hours to flight time on some routes. Just one extra hour of flight time adds between $11,000 and $20,000 to the cost of a journey.

A decline in Russian visitors is expected to hit the Southeast Asian destinations like Thailand, Malaysia, Vietnam, and Indonesia, among others. The military conflict and subsequent sanctions against Russia and airspace restrictions have dampened projections in the Asia-Pacific region where Russians became the largest and most spendthrift group of visitors for many top destinations during the pandemic, displacing the Chinese unable to travel due to their country’s strict border controls. The fallout is already being felt in popular destinations such as the Thai resort island of Phuket, where the Russians account for 51,000 of the 278,000 foreigners who visited the island between November 2021 and February 2022, according to the Tourism Authority of Thailand. But with the value of the Rouble plunging to record lows, the number of Russians who can afford to travel overseas is set to shrink in the coming days even after the sanctions are lifted. According to The Phuket News, Sasiwat Wongsinsawat, Thailand’s Ambassador to Russia, has said that Thailand needs to form new tourism tactics to better assist Russian and Ukrainian tourists.

The bigger problem will start when a final ceasefire will be declared, troops will return to their bases, and the civilians, mostly the middle-class will be left to struggle with a life of horror amidst the debris. They will need a life of dignity. Ukraine will need the world more after the war than they need now. As Ukraine is passing through a historic test of courage to protect its sovereignty, the global tourism fraternity will have to go through the acid test of responsible and sustainable tourism by showing what they can do to help the ravaged tourism scenario of Ukraine and other concerned countries.

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