The Case for Reopening Tourism: International Comparison

The COVID-19 pandemic has hindered tourism all over the world. Such a downturn was especially visible in April and May, since which some countries have reopened tourism fully, while others have continued to impose tight restrictions. Georgia falls into the latter category here, but with international travel revenues contributing significantly to its GDP (18.4% in 2019), there is widespread debate about whether Georgia should loosen its restrictions and, if so, to what extent. In this issue, we will try to address this quandary by analyzing case studies of countries to have quickly reopened their tourism sector without significant restrictions and regulations.

Specifically, we have selected three Southeastern European countries for the analysis, each of which reopened without any testing and quarantine requirements: North Macedonia, Serbia, and Albania. In April and May, each of the countries had severe lockdown measures in place and subsequently registered a fall in the number of visitors close to 100%, compared to the corresponding period of 2019. In June, the first signs of recovery became visible for Serbia and Albania; however, the Serbian numbers stagnated at around a 90% fall for the ensuing months. The number of foreign visitors to Georgia and North Macedonia decreased by more than 90% in every month after April. Albania, meanwhile, managed more of a recovery, with its number of foreign visitors at -72% for June 2020 (compared to June 2019), and then -67% for July, and -63% for August.

The case of Albania could be considered a success story, especially as the spread of the virus has remained more or less in line with the average for Eastern European and Central Asian countries in terms of the number of cases per million people. However, there are several factors to bear in mind that have made it possible for Albania to recover its tourism sector to a greater extent than its neighbors (North Macedonia and Serbia). One of the most important factors was that the epidemiological situation in its neighboring countries was relatively similar. In August, 56% of foreign visitors to Albania came from its neighboring countries.

In the case of Georgia, it would be impossible to significantly recover the number of visitors from its neighboring countries without risking the uncontrolled spread of the virus, as each of Georgia's neighbors has experienced a relatively high infection rate. In 2019, visitors from its four neighboring countries accounted for 71% of total visitors. This means that while reopening flights with safer countries would compensate for some of the decline in tourism, it would not have a sizable impact on the number of total visitors and would thus draw limited revenues as well.

To conclude, it is not probable that making flights available without restrictions in place would lead to a significant increase in the number of foreign visitors to Georgia. Moreover, if the epidemiological situation in the country worsens, domestic tourism would also suffer. With this in mind, it is crucial to support businesses and households engaged in, and dependent on, tourism. They are being stripped of their main source of income and will need help to ready themselves for the post-pandemic recovery, whenever that may begin.

22 October 2020 15:57