Interview with MEP Elena Kountoura

1. The impact of the pandemic on the European hospitality industry has been severe, and today many businesses are still in survival mode after over 18 months. In your view, what measures are essential at the EU level in the short and medium-term to further help hospitality recover and get back to pre-pandemic levels?

Tourism and hospitality are the sectors that suffered the most from the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic, and their recovery comes at a slow pace. Yet, they are driving forces for the economy and the society and accelerators for sustainable and inclusive growth creating millions of jobs and should be treated accordingly, in the short, medium and long term.

Τhe EU and the Member States at a national level must fully integrate tourism in their strategies and plans for recovery, in order to minimize the tremendous impact the sector has endured and its spillover effect in the economy and local societies.

Stronger political will and commitment is needed to ensure that the most vulnerable businesses will be given the chance to survive today and thrive tomorrow. And that jobs will not be lost.

We are still asking for better coordination at a European level regarding improved travel protocols in place, to minimize all risk of travel restrictions, because simply said, tourism cannot afford to take another hit or even wait longer for recovery.

Today, it is evident that Europe, the number one global destination needs a holistic European strategy for tourism.

One of my first proposals as MEP, two years ago, was to create a European mechanism for crisis management in tourism and has been adopted in several European Parliament resolutions.

We have also called on the Commission to swiftly develop a roadmap for sustainable tourism, as well as on the Member States to devise sustainable tourism action plans at the national and regional level in consultation with stakeholders and civil society and to finance such transition plans by making full use of the Next Generation EU funds.

By creating strong European institutions and agencies for tourism and establishing more permanent support mechanisms, the whole sector, including businesses and working force, but also each destination across Europe, will have the opportunity to become more resilient and sustainable in the future, against all challenges that we will need to address.

2. Over 90% of the industry’s businesses are SMEs and micro-enterprises: these activities have great job-creating potential but are also vulnerable. What policies could be put in place to support their recovery and increase their resilience?

Recovery must be fair for all. SMEs are the backbone of hospitality and securing their future is vital for the next day of European tourism and eventually of the European economy. We must make sure that they are well protected, especially the most vulnerable,  from business acquisitions by the most powerful and against the risk of distorted competition that threatens the future of millions of jobs, a risk we cannot afford to take.

In all my interventions at the European Parliament, I have stressed the need for immediate and adequate financial support to SMEs, which still falls short of real needs, given the magnitude of the impact on the sector, and certainly, it has not been timely enough.

Despite the initiatives taken so far at both the European and national level, the sector as a whole, and especially small businesses remain in dire need of liquidity, due to accumulated debt they incurred during long periods of lockdown and low or even zero business activity and income. In several cases, they were excluded, either because they could not meet the preconditions set in state-aid programs, had limited access to bank finance, or even when they were eligible, they could not sustain new debt from loans. The Next Generation EU, while it represents an enormous opportunity, there are very serious concerns as to whether the funding will reach those SMEs that desperately need it.

In the European Parliament resolution adopted last March regarding establishing an EU strategy for sustainable tourism, we stressed the need for more effective relief measures such as reduced VAT rates in the whole hospitality sector.

We also called on the Commission to create an EU mechanism to monitor the provision of support to micro-enterprises and SMEs, that would focus primarily on ensuring liquidity.

It is absolutely necessary that these enterprises have better access to funding programs and use  EU funds and other financial instruments not only to get back on their feet but also for their modernisation and implementation of innovative and sustainable projects.

Therefore, we expect policies and decisions that will gear faster investments and EU funding allocation towards the twin transition of digital transformation and sustainability. It is of paramount importance to support energy efficiency, a circular economy and the sector’s decarbonization, but also to mobilize investments towards inclusive infrastructures that support financial inclusion and entrepreneurship.

3. One of the main challenges that our sector is facing is the lack of skilled workers: after Covid-19, this issue got even more urgent – especially in the context of an increasingly digital and green Union. What initiatives at the EU level could help hospitality overcome this challenge?

The pandemic has demonstrated the urgent need to support and invest in human capital, which is the heart of hospitality and a major pillar for tourism growth. Global travel trends and consumer demand change faster than ever, and millions of jobs were put at a stall or even lost. So, now is the time to focus on policies for reinstating employment and for investing in skill development.

The sector needs workers that will become digitally mature, more innovative and competitive, develop new professional skills, be qualified to deal with the challenges and changes the pandemic has inflicted in business activity and be better protected against future crises.

Artificial intelligence will also play a significant role in how the tourism and hospitality sectors transform and develop over the next years. At the European Parliament, we are currently forming proposals on how artificial intelligence will be used to improve business activity and support jobs in the coming years.

In this context, the EU must address more firmly issues related to education, training and continuous skill development in the wider hospitality sector, cooperate closely with global institutions, such as the UNWTO, the OECD and WTTC for effective programs, and ensure sufficient funds are allocated in supporting human capital.

4. A message to the European hospitality sector – Please address a message to the industry on any issue you consider important or urgent.

The power of tourism and hospitality is tremendous for the European economy and society. It has been before the COVID-19 crisis and must continue to be in the post-pandemic era, as we all strive for a better and more sustainable future for all.

A whole value chain of business activity and employment in several other sectors, such as transport, agriculture, construction and trade rely on tourism activity.

Therefore, now more than ever, learning from the lessons of this pandemic, all stakeholders from the public and private sector need to join forces in creating an ambitious yet concrete roadmap for European tourism, focusing on sustainability. By working together in addressing the challenges, and making the whole hospitality sector more resilient and competitive, we can maximize its beneficial role, economically, socially and environmentally to all regions and all sectors in the years to come.