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Airport cafe in Nuku'alofa, the capital of Tonga.
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Finance & Innovation

Banned Travel Due to COVID-19 Could See Millions of Pacific Workers Slide Into Poverty: Report


Why Global Citizens Should Care
Asia-Pacific economies and the incomes and jobs of workers in the tourism industry have been disproportionately affected by the halt in travel due to COVID-19. With over 15 million Pacific tourism jobs directly or indirectly impacted, millions are at risk of falling into poverty. Global Citizen campaigns on the United Nations’ Global Goals, including goal 1 for no poverty and goal 3 for good health and well-being for all. Join the movement and take action here.

Millions of Pacific workers with previously stable incomes from the tourism sector are at risk of sliding into poverty, predicts a new International Labour Organisation (ILO) report.

With government restrictions banning overseas travel as a result of the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic, tourist numbers have fallen to zero — impacting 15.3 million jobs in nations that are especially reliant on tourism like Fiji, the Maldives, Samoa, Vanuatu, Tonga, and the Cook Islands. 

In many Pacific nations, tourism accounts for more than half the economy.

"In 2018, the Asia-Pacific region as a whole recorded 348 million tourist arrivals, accounting for $442 billion tourism receipts,” the report states. “Especially the economies of some island countries in the region such as Fiji, the Maldives, and Tonga are heavily dependent on tourism, with shares of tourism in total exports reaching 52%, 84%, and 47%, respectively.”

The report also highlights that more than three in four tourism jobs are informal across the region. 

"In many Asia and Pacific countries, more than three in four workers in the tourism sector are informal jobs, leaving them especially vulnerable to the negative impacts of the COVID-19 crisis,” the report claims. “Informal workers are mostly own-account workers, typically lacking access to basic protection, including social protection coverage. They are also often disadvantaged in access to health-care services and have no income replacement if they stop working in case of sickness or lock-downs. For many of them, stopping to work or working remotely at home is not an option. Staying home means losing their jobs, which often means losing their livelihoods.”

The report follows data from the Asian Development Bank (ADB), which suggests that even a conservative three-month halt in travel and trade will result in all Pacific economies contracting this year. 

The Cook Islands’ economy is expected to decline from 5.3% growth last year to -2.2% in 2020 due to the collapse in tourism.

Tonga, which witnessed 3% economic growth last year, is expected to see zero growth in 2020. 

"While most Pacific countries moved quickly and decisively to restrict travel from a fast-growing list of COVID-19 affected countries, such restrictions can come with a high economic cost,” said ADB Director General for the Pacific Leah Gutierrez. “ADB is committed to supporting the Pacific. We are providing grant financing and support to procure needed medical goods and equipment in selected countries. We are also working with Ministries of Finance to assess their budget support needs and coordinating on these closely with other development partners.”

In a similar report, the Australia and New Zealand Banking Group suggests Fiji will lose about a quarter of all jobs, while in Samoa — where more than 70 hotels and resorts have already closed — 19% of all jobs are at risk.

Vanuatu, meanwhile, is expected to see just under 40% of all jobs impacted. 

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Most Pacific nations have introduced some level of economic support to assist their tourism industry.

Alongside the measures, the report claims the majority of countries have also introduced new policies designed to assist small and medium businesses during the crisis, in which various tourism-related enterprises can capitalize.

Without adequate social welfare systems, however, the ILO highlights the importance of continued donor funds. 

The World Bank has already pledged millions to the region, while Australia and New Zealand have joined forces to help fund the World Health Organization’s Pacific response plan.