Countries need to decide swiftly on applying travel restrictions linked to the new B.1.1.529 variant of COVID-19 and make such rules uniform, the head of the Madrid-based United Nations' tourism body said on Friday.
UN World Tourism Organisation Secretary-General Zurab Pololikashvili spoke to Reuters shortly before the World Health Organisation (WHO) cautioned against hasty travel restrictions as it would take a few weeks to understand the variant's impact.
"It depends on WHO recommendations, but my recommendation will be to take decisions today, not after one week, because if it continues to spread as we are expecting then it will be late and will make no sense to apply restrictions," he said.
He pointed out that countries need to follow WHO recommendations in drawing up coordinated travel rules and harmonised safety and hygiene protocols, and stressed Europe should set an example and impose uniform rules to avoid confusing tourists.
"Traditionally it is the most visited continent worldwide, and it is most ready with vaccination numbers and sanitary infrastructure," he added, pointing to the European Union's COVID green pass as a successful example of a joint policy.
Fear of contagion and restrictions on movement triggered a 74% contraction in global tourism arrivals in 2020, according to UNWTO data, generating losses of $1.3 trillion in export revenues.
The industry had hoped the rollout of vaccines would unleash a quick recovery this year but the recent surge in cases across Europe has prompted several nations to bring back tough restrictions, dampening that optimism in the run-up to Christmas.
"Of course the damage is huge because we are talking about the period where there would be a big influx of tourists," Pololikashvili said.
Worldwide, a quarter of countries have travel restrictions in place and borders in some 21% of destinations are completely closed to tourism, according to the UNWTO.