TOURISM – WHERE NOW? Taleb Rifai’s tourism road map to post Covid-19 recovery

Tourism will not bounce back- the UNWTO, WHO and the EU have failed us, according to Taleb Rifai.

Rifai, who was a two-term Secretary-General of the World Tourism Organisation (UNWTO) wears many hats, including one as board member and co-founder of the World Tourism Network (WTN).

In this round-up, he takes an informative, candid and insightful look at what happens next in travel and tourism after Covid-19.

The travel sector is  one of the most badly affected sectors as result of Covid-19.
“This is a defining moment in the history of mankind; we will not bounce back but leap forward into a new world, a new norm. It may become a better and more sustainable world.I am optimistic that we will not go back in time, but move forward with sustainable solutions.”

Every time we travel, we become part of a global movement that has the power to drive positive change for our planet and all its people. 

In 2017, Rifai had an interview with Victor Jorge of the Portuguese Workmedia network who asked how he would define the climate for the industry, when terrorism, Brexit and the election of US President Donald Trump were the top problems facing the travel world. At that time, COVID and the impact it might  have on the travel and tourism industry, was not a consideration. Rifai predicted tourism would bounce back within a year and was proved right. But the situation is very different now, totally uncharted waters with a pandemic like no other, make predictions incredibly challenging.

To progress, we need to rebuild a new multilateral system from the bottom up, brick by brick. A system that does not depend on the principles of the haves and the have-nots.

“Travel is about connecting everybody everywhere. We need a new multilateral system, a more harmonised, fair, and equitable system, because it’s not important how successful every country is on its own. Unfortunately, each government is working on its own, doing what they think is best to protect their own population. This is  understandable but counterproductive.

“Every country should coordinate its actions and procedures with its neighbours first.

“It’s not important how successful every country is on its own. If one cannot travel from one place to another, what individual actions countries might independently are of no consequence. This is the nature of travel. It connects people and places. We have to function as one. We cannot have one country insisting on quarantine, while another is demanding  vaccination passports, and a third country asking for testing proof issued 72-hour before arrival.

“The European Union is a good example of this failure of the multilateral system. Even the United States is not ‘united’ anymore. Each state is acting on its own, as is the UN, they have all failed us.”

The vaccination dilemma

“Vaccination is a good example. At current rates, it will take  five years to vaccinate 70% of the world population.

“The travel industry will only bounce forward to achieve a new norm when the whole world is ready to travel under a unified system. The nature of travel is that you have to send people and also receive people. It is, therefore, not wise  to depend solely on vaccinations. It is not fair, nor is it equitable in today’s world for countries and people that do not have the ability to vaccinate the majority of their populations. We do not want to turn this into a political game, and most importantly, we will all lose if we pit those who have been vaccinated against those who have not. In that scenario, nobody will travel to a non-vaccinated destination, and no vaccinated destination would accept travellers from  non-vaccinated countries.

“Only those that understand  we are moving towards a new norm, a new reality, will survive. A new world is in the making – one that is more fair and equitable and, therefore, more sustainable.

Everyone has to adjust. Unfortunately the travel industry does not have a history of being the best at making adjustments or thinking on an innovative level.”

Let’s remember that we were able to put a man on the moon before we were able to put two wheels on a suitcase. That indicates just how conservative and slow to move the travel sector has been.

”Airlines have to communicate more confidence and trust in cleanliness and hygiene, and they must have a more flexible booking and cancellation policy. Hotels must  recognise that domestic and regional clients are going to be the first to visit, so national holidays will see better traffic. After that, maybe digital nomads, which will require special long-term deals, will fall inline, so special and different deals will have to be offered. Restaurants will also have to cater more to delivery and adjust seating for social distancing and outdoor seating. All this in addition to other changes will be necessary  to convey the feeling that cleanliness and proper hygiene structure are the order of the day.

“The world is becoming more digital, and we must adapt and make the best use of technology. We have to think outside the box. Tourism must recognise that everything can become digital and virtual, not just meetings and conferences, but also public events like concerts or big gatherings, even gym activities and personal events.”

As an example, Rifai explains how he watched his daughter married via Zoom. He was in Amman, Jordan, with the father of the groom, while his daughter and her husband were in Dubai, with the priest on another line. Thinking outside the box, being imaginative and making use of available technology made it happen.

“We must first recognise the changes and embrace them, and then we should think imaginatively of meeting the challenges through technology, sustainability and honest and transparent promotion, as explained. This will suit the new digital, young, and well-informed consumer.

“In tourism, there can be no competition between neighbours. Usually, what is good for my neighbour is good for me. It is like the principle in a souk where all those that sell spices or gold are collected together in the same street, as one customer brings another.

“In summary, for domestic and regional travel to revive, there are three stages for recovery:

  1. Keep businesses alive. This will require direct support from governments, perhaps in the form of soft loans  to ensure businesses have enough time to adjust to the new reality and survive.
  2. The private sector must adjust quickly to the new realities of domestic and regional travellers. Offer them tempting new deals. Then and only then can governments scale back on the provision of direct support.
  3. Start international travel with the young digital nomads and offer special travel insurance policies for foreigners. Offer special arrangements and packages in  the accommodation sector as well as increased support on  visas and tax issues for both short and longer stays.”

Rifai’s end message is clear – come together.
“We can only do this together,” he insists. No government can go it alone, no matter how good its’ plan.

We must remember that opportunities arise out of every crises – let us not miss this one. In this case, we should take a tip from the Chinese language where  the written characters in the word word ‘crisis’ and the word ‘opportunity’ are the same.”


Taleb Rifai will be talking live at the Arabian Travel Market (ATM) show. ATM 2021 will be held as a hybrid (part live, part virtual) event in Dubai.It is the first live conference since the beginning of the pandemic.

ATM will run live from 16 – 19 May 2021 at the Dubai World Trade Centre (DWTC) and the virtual event (ATM Virtual) will take place ATM Virtual 24 – 26 May 2021.





If you are planning to attend the live event, please be aware that you must pre-register online.
The process is simple and the forms take less than 3 minutes to complete.

There will be absolutely NO onsite registration this year to comply with Covid-19 rules.