Arnie Weissmann
Arnie Weissmann

To prevent myself from turning into a slug that only sits, isolated, in front of a computer, I venture forth every evening to my building's staircase. It's 38 stories from top to bottom, and I climb it four times.

To break the monotony, I listen to books, and I'm currently halfway through the amazing "Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind" by historian Yuval Noah Harari (Harper, 2014).

"History is not a means for making accurate predictions," he warns at one point. "We study history not to know the future, but to widen our horizons; to understand that our present situation is neither natural nor inevitable; and that we consequently have many more possibilities before us than we imagine."

This particular passage struck me because I was contemplating writing about what I believe might occur in various segments of travel after the Covid-19 crisis ends. Harari's caution was a good reminder that we can look to the past to help understand how we got where we are, but that history is filled with unexpected twists and turns, so forecasting accurately based on past experience is somewhat futile.

The book was published in English in 2014. Harari deviates from his own advice about avoiding forecasting just one time, predicting that nationalism, the driving political force of the past five years, is all but dead and buried and that the world is likely to soon come together to solve the global warming crisis.

Would he revise that today? Not necessarily. He gives himself cover by noting at one point in the book that there may be short-term departures from long-term trends. He calls these "speed bumps."

And with those cautions fresh in mind, I begin, with trepidation, my look backwards and forwards from a point in time that I'll call the end of the beginning of the Covid-19 crisis. What follows are not predictions but, in Harari's words, "possibilities," ones that are informed, but not determined, by history.

In the months that followed the H1N1 virus' emergence in 2009, stories appeared in Travel Weekly reporting that: trade groups criticized politicians for sowing doubts about the safety of travel; airlines cut capacity;  a confirmed case of H1N1 was traced to a cruise passenger and another to a crew member; a hotel was placed under quarantine after a guest was discovered to be infected; countries closed their ports to cruise ships; cruise lines implemented enhanced health screening procedures; and travel insurance excluded some H1N1 claims.

Mexico had a cluster of cases and was hit hardest: cruise lines skipped port calls there, hotel occupancy dropped 50% in a week, resorts temporarily closed,  cancellations skyrocketed and new bookings stopped cold.

This all played out in less than a month before headlines appeared indicating recovery was underway.

Was it, perhaps, a dress rehearsal for Covid-19?

Just as the first stories of tourism recovery from H1N1 began to appear, I was invited to join a panel at the World Travel and Tourism Council's (WTTC) Global Summit in Florianopolis, Brazil, on the topic of pandemics. It kicked off with John Walker, chairman and founder of Oxford Economics, presenting a study commissioned by the WTTC to analyze the possible outcome of a virulent worldwide pandemic.

The predictions were striking. I wrote at the time that Walker foresaw gross domestic product losses of almost $2.2 trillion to the global tourism economy. "People will stop [leisure] travel. Business and governments will cut back, as well, on discretionary travel. Nondiscretionary spending will be affected."

Asked what, if anything, could be done to mitigate such a crisis, Walker said that those in the room should "encourage governments to be better prepared. Governments need to look at contingency plans."

At about that time, the Mexican government's health agency was being praised for containing the virus quickly by, among other measures, effectively rolling out a social distancing campaign.

As it turns out, Mexico's secretary of tourism at the time, Gloria Guevara, is the current CEO of the WTTC, and her memories of H1N1's impact on travel to her country have not faded. "At WTTC we have been talking about the importance of crisis preparedness, management and recovery for years," she wrote to me recently in an email. "This is one of our top priorities, and unfortunately, it's clear that a lot of countries were not prepared [for Covid-19]."

So, if the less-virulent H1N1 was the dress rehearsal, but the lessons learned were subsequently cast aside, what if Covid-19 is the dress rehearsal for something worse? SARS, for instance, had a mortality rate of 9.5%, about five times higher than Covid-19.

There are other variables besides mortality at play with viruses -- Covid-19, for example, is more compatible with human hosts than SARS was -- but an easily transmitted pathogen with a high mortality rate is not inconceivable. Had Chinese residents in 2003 been as large a presence in the outbound travel markets as they are today, the SARS crisis would, perhaps, have been far more devastating than it was. It may have been the wakeup call governments needed to prepare adequately for the next pandemic.

Will Covid-19 be that wakeup call? Because of the global nature of its spread, its devastating impact on economies and the upending of lives of ordinary people, it is more likely than previous health scares to spur governments to get ready for the next round. But as historian Harari catalogues in his book, humans do not always act in their own global self-interest. Particularly when nationalistic feelings are on the rise.

To be continued tomorrow.


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