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Travel and tourism absent from UN draft declaration on pandemics – squawk code 7500

By Samuel d’Almeida
on September 13, 2023

It appears the UN development system, as well as ongoing multi-pronged reform attempts in global health governance to prevent and deal with a pandemic, have a blind spot for the potentially pernicious impact of the world travel and tourism industry. 

Indeed, as New York is gearing up for its annual high-level week and the 78th session of the UN general assembly (UNGA78),  the terms “tourism” and “travel” are simply absent from the UN zero draft of the Political Declaration on Pandemic Prevention, Preparedness and Response (PPPR),  due for the upcoming high-level meeting (HLM) on 20 September.  This is hard to comprehend. As pointed out in an article from last year in The Lancet Regional Health – Americas, destructive COVID-19 outbreaks occurred in some of the most pristine islands in the world, within days after the implementation of the COVID-19 passport / EU digital COVID certificate policy

In a report published about the (2009-2010) H1N1 pandemic, UNWTO (the World Tourism Organization, formerly known as the International Union of Official Tourist Propaganda Organizations and later the International Union of Official Travel ‎Organizations) was careful to frame tourism as a “trust and belief product”. Apparently it seeks to continue in that merry spirit despite the Covid pandemic, now that in Geneva two processes are ongoing to reform governance of health emergencies (including pandemics). For example, the Intergovernmental Negotiating Body (INB) Bureau’s (draft) text (version early June) in preparation for a pandemic treaty (“WHO CA+”) recently suggested to raise finances partly from a voluntary fund, to which the travel and tourism industry would presumably “generously” contribute. Cfr “A voluntary fund shall be established for pandemic prevention, preparedness, response and recovery of health systems, with contributions from all relevant sectors that benefit from good public health (travel, trade, tourism, transport).” …”to assist Parties, in particular developing countries  in meeting their obligations under the WHO CA+ “. Nothing in there on how tourism and travel can actually harm public health in a pandemic.  One can hardly imagine that this ‘voluntary’ money wouldn’t come without strings attached. Moreover, the travel and tourism sector was deemed too vulnerable in the face of today’s series of crises/external shocks  to be a source of (more) sustainable health financing, according to the IMF.

But it is not just at the UN/WHO that the world tourism industry likes to scramble the radars. The recent G20 New Delhi leaders’ declaration  emphasizes “the crucial role of tourism (…) as a means for sustainable socioeconomic development and economic prosperity” (24.iii). Word from the G20 pilgrims! Still, it doesn’t look good. We all recall how the sector laid off workers at the height of the COVID-19 crisis, exposing them to financial hardship, or small island tourist economies hit hard by major fires this summer (Greek islands, Hawaii ) or those million-dollar, yet coronavirus-stricken cruise ships like the Diamond Princess and consorts mainly kept at bay from the start of the pandemic.

But back to the PPPR political declaration. Contrary to the G20, the UN should keep the promise of preventing, preparing and responding next pandemics, collectively. A UN high-level declaration must – at the very least – be commensurate with public health goals. This includes a risk-based approach to the commercial determinants of health, which encompass the travel and tourism sector in a pandemic.  

Conspicuously enough, the UN stays numb about that.

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