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The best way to run international travel policy is to approach it like a business, according to Gloria Guevara, chief executive and president of the World Travel and Tourism Council.

A national or international agreement, she says, is “what a corporation would call a business plan with your goals and your KPIs”.

Providing that clarity has never been so consequential for the global travel industry, which because of the coronavirus pandemic suffered record losses last year. Aircraft are grounded, hotels shuttered, cruise ships mothballed and borders around the world largely closed.

Three years into her role at the WTTC, Ms Guevara has had to listen to the concerns of about 200 chief executives whose companies are members of her organisation — including hotel groups Marriott and Hilton, online travel agency Expedia, cruise company Carnival, and holiday rentals platform Airbnb — as normal revenue streams have fallen apart. She has also had to wrestle with governments to come up with solutions that will allow international travel to safely resume without spreading Covid-19.

“There is not a day that I don’t talk to a government official,” she says, adding “at the beginning I was much more frustrated” by the lack of international co-ordination.

330m The number of jobs accounted for by the travel sector - a tenth of the global workforce

Initiatives that will help to save the industry are slowly emerging: travel corridors are beginning to open up between business hubs such as a planned route between Atlanta and Rome, while increasing numbers of airports have begun testing regimes. The promise of mass vaccinations in 2021 offers more hope although the emergence of a particularly infectious strain of coronavirus in Europe signals a setback.

The ecosystem that makes up the fragmented travel and tourism industry accounts for 330m jobs — a tenth of the total global workforce — and made a 10.3 per cent contribution to worldwide gross domestic product in 2019. The WTTC estimates that if there is no improvement in the current situation a further 32m jobs will be lost from the sector on top of 143m already affected.

The organisation has analysed 90 different crisis scenarios from the past 20 years and also forecasts that GDP created as a result of travel and tourism activity will drop to $4.7bn below 2019’s levels.

Ms Guevara believes that travel is “the most resilient sector in the world” but she is concerned about how long the recovery might take.

With the prevailing health crisis, the key hurdle has been the lack of a systematic approach. Countries, faced with rocketing infection rates and death tolls, have looked to their own first but, Ms Guevara says, this has been a mistake.

Speaking over a Zoom call in London, she offers three examples.

First, few countries shared information at the beginning as the pandemic spread round the world, which meant valuable lessons from China, where the first cases of Covid-19 were discovered, or Italy, where the virus first hit in Europe, were missed.

Second, some countries did not buy tests from others, leading to a costly delay in the rollout of testing regimes, and third, the border closures have provoked reciprocal actions, as in May when France announced equivalent measures for any European country that imposed quarantines on its own nationals.

It has all been damaging to the travel industry but Ms Guevara now sees reason for optimism: “Are we where we were supposed to be? No. We have some way to go and we need some countries to step up and have some decent leadership but I feel like we are moving in the right direction.”

At least with a vaccine, she adds, we are seeing countries realise that “they depend on each other”.

A key moment was the WTTC’s effort to bring together 45 private sector chief executives with tourism ministers in October as part of Saudi Arabia’s virtual G20. It was the first time so many companies had been invited to attend the meeting — which preceded the main summit between heads of state in November — even if it was online. Here Ms Guevara and her team banged heads together until an international travel recovery plan was agreed and working groups formed to address testing, contact tracing, travel corridors and government support.

“We just needed a space to put forward a plan [and] Saudi made that happen. The stars were aligned because last year Saudi opened to tourism for the first time ever,” Ms Guevara says.

Chris Nassetta, chief executive of Hilton, says that “during the most challenging year ever for the sector”, Ms Guevara’s leadership has been “instrumental in strengthening the travel and tourism industry’s collaboration with governments worldwide”, with the best example of this being the G20 summit.

It is not the first crisis that Ms Guevara, the first female and Hispanic leader of the WTTC, has faced. When she became tourism minister of Mexico in 2010, the country was recovering from the effects of the H1N1, or swine flu, outbreak and a severe financial recession that had caused GDP to fall the previous year by 6 per cent — not far off the entire size of Mexico’s tourism sector at the time. Ministers in the Mexican government called it “the perfect storm”.

By 2012, under Ms Guevara’s guidance, Mexico counted as one of the top 10 most popular tourism destinations in the world by number of arrivals.

It was a rapid change of direction for Ms Guevara who had previously been chief executive of the Mexican operation of Sabre, the travel technology company, and had been “aiming to come to Europe and get a bigger job”.

Three questions for Gloria Guevara

Who is your leadership hero?

I have internal and external heroes. Internal is my parents. My father is a retired general bringing the values of perseverance and discipline. My mum was the empathy, the caring [side]. That is what we are lacking now in the world. And then there are a lot of leaders I like to learn from. Especially those that started with humble beginnings, like Michelle Obama. I love [it] when they speak because I learn so much.

If you were not a CEO, what would you be?

I love to be able to help others. My time in the government opened my eyes in different ways and understand the social impact of the sector. Perhaps when I have more time and I am retired I would like to coach girls in their careers . . . telling them what has worked and not worked for me.

What was the first leadership lesson you learnt?

I have so many. I worked with many different nationalities early in my career so one that is very huge for me was we need to understand that different people offer different contributions. Try to listen more and understand the different points of view.

She was unexpectedly invited to a meeting of travel executives in January 2010 with the then-president of Mexico, Felipe Calderón, only to find herself the only person in the room for reasons she still does not know. She was in the president’s office for more than an hour, telling him what was needed to recover tourism. A month later she was offered the job.

“He gave me two jobs for half of the salary I was doing in the private sector [but] it was a great experience. It was like doing another MBA,” she recalls.

The WTTC has been a different beast to manage but, Ms Guevara says, learning to speak the language of government in Mexico was invaluable. “In the private sector you have four or five stakeholders. In government you have 12 or 13 . . . Who are you accountable to? It’s very complicated,” she says.

Juggling clients across time zones has meant long working days throughout the pandemic, starting at 8am and ending past 9pm. With two children, aged 14 and 16, the hours, she admits, are “not good”.

But she remains resilient even as news of a third wave across Europe and the US spreads: “Perhaps the recovery will take longer but then we will see an interesting growth.”

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