Felicity Long
Felicity Long

For the past seven years, a panel called the Future of European Tourism has been a highlight at the annual Bled Strategic Forum in Slovenia. This year, that topic takes on a new sense of urgency, as pandemic-induced entry requirements change -- and change again -- with dizzying speed.

The panel, which took place Sept. 1 and 2, featured Luis Araujo, president of the European Travel Commission and director of the Portugal National Tourist Board; Alessandra Priante, World Tourism Organization (UNWTO) director of the regional department for Europe; Kerstin Jorna, director-general for the internal market, industry, entrepreneurship and small and medium enterprises at the European Commission; Maja Pak, director of the Slovenian Tourist Board (STB); and Zdravko Pocivalsek, Slovenian minister of economic development and Technology.

Related: Country-by-country guide for Europe travel in the pandemic era

Despite the complicated state of European travel, a key takeaway from the panel was relatively straightforward: Get it together, people. 

"The future of tourism will be brighter if we base our actions in a collective and shared responsibility, focusing on how to transform and improve our sector -- from supply to demand," Araujo said.

Priante of the UNWTO agreed, noting that tourists are skittish when they don't know the rules.  "Collaboration and cooperation are key to restart tourism, to establish harmonized protocols, that will increase predictability of the procedures before, during and after travel, which in turn is the prerequisite for tourists' willingness, let alone desire, to travel," she said.

Pak of the STB echoed her sentiments, citing the grim toll Covid has taken in Slovenia. 

"Last year, the pandemic plunged tourism into the biggest crisis so far and showed the great economic importance of tourism and its impact on other activities," she said. "Many companies are struggling to survive. A precondition for the resumption of tourist flows as soon as possible is coordinated action and intensive coordination between European countries on flow restrictions."

Of course, calls for getting the various EU members to coordinate their Covid entry rules has been a drumbeat since early in the pandemic, and one that has been largely and frustratingly ignored by many countries. Understandably, members that depend on tourism for a disproportionate amount of their revenue were among those to open earliest and with the fewest requirements, often to then have to backtrack when infection rates surged.

One thing we've all learned is that, when it comes to Covid, magical thinking doesn't work.

But despite the seemingly chaotic nature of pandemic regulations and protocols, Jorna highlighted some successes, namely a largely effective vaccination campaign in Europe and the implementation of the EU Digital Covid Certificate.

"By the end of August, we had more than 355 million EU Digital Certificates issued," Jorna said, adding, "There are 54 countries either connected to the European Digital Certificate Gateway or applying to do so."

An opportunity to redefine tourism

Another, more nuanced message from the panel offered a vision of the future that includes seeing this disruption as an opportunity to redefine what European tourism could be. As Jorna articulated, "We want to define together with all the stakeholders a roadmap for the industry and destinations, a blueprint of European Tourism that is greener, fit for the digital age and ultimately more resilient and competitive."

Pocivalsek touted these same trends in Slovenia, a destination that has long built its reputation on green travel.

"Boutique, sustainable, safe, tailor-made experiences in tourism are the foundations on which we have built our success already in the past strategic framework," he said.

Blending the need for unity with a vision for the future is key to a successful full reentry, said Pak, who frames these delays as an opportunity.

"To gain back the trust of tourists and to seek the satisfaction of the local population, it is necessary to create better tourism, but we do not want to return to the old tracks," she said. "It is therefore necessary to think in advance about the coordinated shaping of the European future of tourism, which is a key theme of this year's panel."

Or, as Araujo put it simply, "Tourism can and will be, more than ever, a force for good."

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