Bringing cultural tourism back in the game
The COVID-19 pandemic has stopped cultural tourism in its tracks. Throughout 2020 international arrivals plunged by 74% worldwide, dealing a massive blow to the sector, which faces ongoing precarity and unpredictability. Amidst international travel restrictions, border closures and physical distancing measures, countries have been forced to impose wide-spread closures of heritage sites, cultural venues, festivals and museums, some of which may never reopen.
Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, global tourism was experiencing strong growth over several decades. Destinations earning US$1 billion or more from international tourism have almost doubled since the late 1990s. Tourism has become a key player in international commerce, outpacing global economic growth and, in 2019, injecting US$8.9 trillion into the global economy, or 10.3% of the world's Gross Domestic Product (GDP). The cultural sector as a whole depends greatly on the tourism industry.
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Cultural tourism - defined by the UNWTO as tourism centred on cultural attractions and products - is one of the fastest-growing segments of the tourism industry, accounting for an estimated 40% of all tourism worldwide. It intersects with heritage and religious sites, crafts, performing arts, gastronomy, festivals and special events, among others. Countries around the world are harnessing their unique mix of tangible and intangible heritage and contemporary culture to boost economic growth and sustainable development through cultural tourism, which can lead to job creation, regeneration of rural and urban areas, and the protection of natural and cultural heritage. Cultural tourism is a continuingly evolving sub-sector, which continues to be transformed by changing lifestyles, burgeoning forms of culture and creativity, and traditional and digital innovation. It has also become an increasingly complex phenomenon - taking on greater political, economic, social, educational and ecological dimensions.
Cultural tourism is also a major pillar of employment globally and is considered by many countries around the world as a core priority to stimulate job creation, notably for youth. The tourism sector as a whole is estimated by the World Travel and Tourism Council (WTTC) to contribute 330 million jobs – one in ten jobs around the world – while cultural tourism alone accounts for a significant share of tourism employment by generating 40% of world tourism revenues. Cultural tourism permeates across the whole cultural ecosystem, sustaining employment around cultural and natural sites and museums, including through restoration and maintenance work, as well as throughout the different cultural domains – particularly crafts, gastronomy and performing arts – and further stimulated by festivals and cultural events. Beyond cultural jobs per say, cultural tourism also spurs employment across global, national and local economies given the interaction of the cultural tourism sector with many other economic sectors in services and industry, notably auxiliary services such as the hospitality, food and leisure sectors, as well as in the construction sector, particularly linked to the restoration and maintenance of cultural sites. The COVID-19 pandemic and related social distancing and travel restrictions measures has had a devastating impact on cultural tourism employment, prompting a snowball effect across many sub-sectors while also exposing its volatility and the high prevalence of informality. Women, young people, rural communities, indigenous peoples and informal workers have been disproportionately affected by the abrupt drop in cultural tourism revenues. In view of this major impact on employment in many countries – notably in regions that are major tourism destinations such as Europe, the Pacific or the Caribbean but also many countries in the developing world – restarting cultural tourism is a major concern for governments around the world, as strongly voiced by ministers at the Online Meeting of Ministers of Culture hosted by UNESCO on 22 April last.
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