MADRID: Representatives from 55 countries gathered at Madrid's FITUR tourism congress this week to promote themselves as safe destinations and kickstart a recovery in global travel, which was brought to a near-standstill by COVID-19 last year.
"It's an inflection point for the industry," said Spain's Tourism Minister Reyes Maroto, opening the event, where just a fifth of the usual pre-pandemic 250,000 attendees are expected, due to travel restrictions.
Fear of contagion and restrictions on movement triggered a 74per cent contraction in international tourism arrivals in 2020, according to the United Nations World Tourism Organisation (WTO), generating losses of US$1.3 trillion in export revenues.
But with vaccination campaigns gathering pace across the globe, tourism-dependent economies are anxious to entice back visitors and believe now is the time for a comeback.
"We cannot remain closed anymore! After a year and a half what people need is to get moving again," said Rodrigo Hurtado Escalante, part of Mexico's 110-member delegation.
A key event for lesser-known destinations to raise their profile and for industry buyers to cut package deals with resorts, this year's installment was "a little decaffeinated," said Hurtado, who first came to FITUR 20 years ago.
Large screens gave attendance figures in real time, while masked Mauritanians in traditional dress mingled with representatives from Colombia and Peru, who argued enthusiastically about the relative merits of their respective cuisines.
Most agreed that even with vaccination certificates, regaining the confidence of prospective travellers will take time and short-distance trips will remain the norm until next year.
"Argentina's big bet in the short term is regional," Tourism Minister Matias Lammens said. "It's the same as what's happening in Europe, what's going to recover fastest is local tourism."
Like most other delegates, Lammens was keen to play up his country's natural credentials, expecting less-populated destinations to outpace demand for city travel in the short-term.
"We're financing several projects in areas related to nature tourism... We have a huge opportunity here," he said in an interview.
(Reporting by Nathan Allen; editing by Robin Emmott and Jonathan Oatis)