CANCUN -- The opening session of the World Travel and Tourism Council's (WTTC) first post-pandemic global summit featured a video of children from around the world talking about how much they missed sharing their cultures with visitors. It ended with a young boy saying, "Everything is going to be all right."
Indeed, that seemed to be the overwhelming consensus among the more than 600 people who gathered here for the three-day conference this week, the first major in-person gathering of travel and tourism leaders since Covid-19 shuttered travel to much of the world.
"While not through it, we are on the brink of recovery," Hilton CEO and WTTC chairman Chris Nassetta told the crowd during what he said was his first speech to a live audience in more than a year. "It is important that we work together to reunite."
That underlying optimism -- highlighted by the conference theme of "Uniting the World for Recovery" -- was bolstered on opening day with news that the European Union would reopen to vaccinated travelers this summer.
While the WTTC and groups like the U.S. Travel Association have repeatedly said they oppose vaccine mandates for travel, the news was nonetheless applauded by members and delegates eager to avoid losing another summer of tourism.
Spain's tourism secretary, Fernando Valdes Verelst, called the news "excellent." But he emphasized in an interview with Travel Weekly that it is now crucial that the 27-country bloc makes its plan to develop a digital certification program for verifying vaccinated travelers work.
"We cannot fail in this process; we cannot go three steps backward if it were to turn out people aren't certified by reliable authorities," he said. "You have to have the vaccination proven from a public authority."
The EU said it hopes to have its certification program ready by June, although no official date has been set for opening borders. Individual countries can still set their own policies, but officials here seemed confident that the bloc had finally reached an agreement for common policies and protocols. Some countries like Greece, Iceland and Croatia are already open or preparing to open.
WTTC CEO Gloria Guevara. Photo Credit: Couretsy of WTTC
In a virtual address to the summit, French president Emmanuel Macron said his government, too, is working hard to reopen its country and territories.
"I would love to host you in Paris before the end of the year to discuss how to work together for recovery," Macron said.
Valdes said tourism-reliant countries began pushing for the regional reopening after seeing the U.S., U.K. and Israel moving quickly with vaccines. "We saw a need to put this in place," he said.
A stumbling block was that European Commission members that aren't dependent on tourism weren't willing to make visitation a priority, Valdes said. But a breakthrough came in a late February meeting, when countries including Spain, Portugal and Greece convinced the others that 2021 could not be a repeat of 2020 with uncoordinated regulation, he said. Successful vaccine rollouts opened the door for a safe reopening.
Valdes said he hopes more such announcements will follow.
Asked whether the move would result in a push for the U.S. to also open its borders, Harry Theocharis, tourism minister for Greece, said, "We feel you cannot wait for reciprocity. We've said this is our system, and the pressure will be on other governments."
While the Europe reopening news was hailed as an important step toward recovery, tourism representatives from both the public and private sectors agreed that the booming rebound most are hoping for can't happen until fear and uncertainty are removed from the travel equation.
"We need a statement from the World Health Organization that traveling is not a greater risk if you play by the rules," Portugal's tourism secretary, Rita Marques, told the summit.
Marques said that throughout the pandemic, there have been "noisy reactions that jeopardized the industry and increased the perception [of] the risk" of travel.
To move forward, she said, the public and private sectors need to communicate more clearly and assertively that travel can be done safely.
But the public and private sectors also need to come together to push for more uniform global rules governing testing, vaccines, quarantines and digital health records so that travelers can book travel without worry, participants said during panel discussions.
Daniel Richards, founder and CEO of Global Rescue, said successful vaccination campaigns are removing the fear of getting sick for many. And companies like his can provide insurance and a means to fly people home if they do get Covid-19.
But the private sector alone, he said, "can't remove the uncertainty of the travel experience. That goes to governments. [We need] some level of coordination among governments so that when travelers start to book that trip, start talking about it, [they] have a guarantee that they are not going to get stuck in quarantine."
The WTTC closed its summit with a commitment to boosting female representation in industry leadership.
The WTTC closed its summit with a commitment to work toward women's equality and boost female representation in leadership roles in the industry.
"As the first female president and CEO of WTTC, it is an honor to champion this important initiative," WTTC head Gloria Guevara said.
While women make up 54% of the industry's workforce, "globally, women have been disproportionately affected by the pandemic, which has exacerbated the pay gap, the opportunity gap and the shocking lack of senior positions and leadership roles across the travel and tourism sector," Guevara said. "This needs to be changed."
Tennis great Martina Navratilova joined the closing session to launch the women empowerment initiative.
"Women have always had to outperform men, and whilst things are changing for the better, it is still a fight and a constant battle," Navratilova said.
Guevara also announced that the WTTC plans to hold next year's global summit in the Philippines.