In 2020, governments across the world closed borders, airlines grounded flights, hotels shuttered and cruises were canceled or postponed.
The measures imposed to curb the spread of the coronavirus decimated the livelihoods of millions of travel and hospitality workers, whose jobs depend on tourism. Efforts by governments to mitigate the socio-economic impact of the pandemic and stimulate the recovery of the travel industry have fallen short, especially in developing countries where many workers have received little or no support.
In the United States alone, more than 4 million travel jobs were lost in 2020, according to the U.S. Travel Association. Across the globe, between 100 million and 120 million more direct tourism jobs are gone or at risk, the World Tourism Organization has warned.
The cruise and aviation sectors were hit particularly hard. After cruise ships were grounded last March, every 1% of cruisers lost resulted in a reduction of 9,100 industry-related jobs, the Cruise Lines International Association, the industry’s trade group, found. Each day of the suspension caused direct and indirect industry losses of 2,500 jobs. The downturn in air traffic last year resulted in a loss of around 4.8 million direct aviation jobs, a 43% drop from pre-pandemic levels, Geneva-based Air Transport Action group said.
Six travel workers, from a cruise-ship worker in Manila to a tour bus driver in East Jerusalem, spoke with us about the challenges they and their families have faced over the past 12 months without work. In their own words, they shared how the prolonged shutdown and its uncertainty upended their lives. While they all feel they have survived the worst of the pandemic, many of them have accumulated significant debt and worry about their future job prospects. Most of them feel optimistic that travel will pick up soon following the global inoculation drive, but are concerned that it could take years for the industry to recover to pre-pandemic levels.
These interviews were edited and condensed for clarity.
Alvin Villorente, 44,
cruise-ship wine steward
After nearly 10 years working as a wine steward for Norwegian Cruise Line, I was repatriated to the Philippines last April, unsure when the coronavirus would be brought under control and I would be called back to work.
When we were still on board the cruise ship, they gave us severance pay, but when we came home, it suddenly stopped. I have been a seafarer for almost 24 years, and this is the first time I have not received any money for nearly one year. It is very, very challenging.
In my job, I was responsible for sales and inventory of beverages and assisting passengers to pick out wines to accompany their meals. I would earn around $2,000 a month, including tips, and sent my entire salary home to support my wife and four children, who are 26, 23, 16 and 12.
We were quite comfortable. We even had savings and used the money to start construction on a new home. But now we cannot even afford our electricity bills and we are drowning in debt.
We had to move out of our home in Manila last year because we could no longer afford the rent. Now we are living in the house we bought, which is still under construction. I had to buy cement to put it on the floor so that my children wouldn’t have to sleep on the mud and I put up tarp so that we would have a roof over our kitchen.
We have been resourceful, but I don’t know how much longer we can live like this. We are behind on our mortgage payments and we have almost $5,000 in debt. I looked for work but there is nothing. My daughter works in a fast-food chain and my son does courier work, but that is only enough for our meals.
I cannot sleep at night worrying about the next day when the sun comes up. Will someone call to ask for the money? Will they come and take the house? How can I give anyone an honest answer when I don’t know how long before I can work again?
Mustafa Abu Sarah, 53, tour bus driver
I used to spend most of my time crisscrossing Israel and the occupied West Bank, transporting tourists from around the world to centuries-old holy sites, open-air markets and seaside hotels.
But after the pandemic emerged in Israel and the occupied West Bank in early 2020, I lost my job. I am still without work and have racked up a significant amount of debt.
The pandemic has caused tremendous anxiety for me. It’s hard to see the light at the end of the tunnel because nobody can tell us when tourism will finally come back. Every time, we hear another estimate — one day they say it will return in the summer and the next day they say it will return in the fall.
I have managed to put food on the table for my wife and my son through monthly $1,160 welfare checks from the Israeli government and some support from my former employer, but I am still facing enormous financial challenges. My bank account is in deficit, my rent is in arrears by nine months, and I have a growing number of unpaid bills piling up.
For the past decade, I worked for a variety of tour bus companies, which paid me about $1,530 per month. I would work almost every day of the month during peak tourism seasons.
I have tried to find new employment but was only offered a job as a truck driver. Earlier this month, I sold my car for $3,050 to buy myself some breathing room.
My situation is better than the people I know in the West Bank, but it’s still very difficult because I’m always thinking about how I can make ends meet.
Despite the challenges, I still have hope I will eventually be able to return to my old job.
If I weren’t optimistic, I wouldn’t know what to do. If God wills, I’ll be back in the driver’s seat soon.
Marcia Simpson, 51, hotel housekeeper
I was working as a housekeeper at two resorts in March when the borders shut down and immediately our managers sent us home. Since then, I have had no income or assistance and it is impossible to find any work.
The hotels that have opened in Jamaica are all operating at reduced capacity, so they are not employing as many people as they used to. In season, I would make around $250 a month cleaning 30 rooms a day. Now, housekeepers are cleaning five to 10 rooms at most and are making less money.
My eldest son is taking care of our family now. God bless him, he has managed to make some money selling electronic parts online. My husband passed away many years ago and my daughter is only 15 so we have a small family and manage to get by, but we desperately need the money I used to make.
We had to leave our two-bedroom home because we could not afford the rent. For months now we have been living in a small room in our friend’s house. We sleep on the floor on mattresses and have a small seating area where we watch television together. I do all the cooking and cleaning for both our families, which has been demanding, but it is all I can do in return for a roof over our heads.
I want so much more for my children. I want them to finish university and get good, respected jobs. They deserve so much more than this and it breaks my heart that I cannot do more for them in this moment.
The hardest part is not knowing when I will be able to work again and provide for my family. It could be a very long time before the hotels are full again and it is very competitive to get other housekeeping work, especially in private residences.
I went for a few trials last June when things opened up, but it was backbreaking work with too much attitude from the residence owners. In the resorts, there is a daily routine that I am used to, and when I finish my work I go home without a headache.
Maybe I didn’t appreciate my work so much then, but I would do anything to go back there now. As soon as I am given the vaccination I will go from hotel to hotel until one of them takes me in.
Augustine Kikomeko, 46, safari guide
My last safari was in February last year. We almost did not finish the tour because our European clients had to rush back home before their countries went into lockdown.
I was working every day — around 15 days as a guide on the field and 15 days doing logistics in Kampala. When everything suddenly stopped, I lost all my income and unfortunately, the government did not give us any help. We were on our own.
It has been a very, very hard time for safari guides. Most of us have had to sell our property, land or vehicles just to survive. It is only by God’s grace that some of us are still surviving after all this time.
I got a small job washing cars. As a safari guide, I made around $800 a month, and now I make $100. I have a wife and three children aged 18, 12 and 8, and right now our main target is to be able to eat food. If we get food for a day, then we thank God.
We were renting a house with three bedrooms, one sitting room, and a kitchen for about $150 per month, but around May I had to move my family to a smaller house, which is around $75 per month. Now we have two bedrooms, a living room and the kitchen is outside.
My biggest problem now is sending the kids back to school. They go to a private school and my son is in his final year so I cannot pull him out. I am fighting tooth and nail so that he can finish and go to university. I sold two small pieces of land and borrowed some money, which I will have to pay back in the near future.
There are days where I feel running mad. Where I can’t think anymore, but then I think of people who are in a worse position than me and I feel grateful. I always have hope that tomorrow will be a better day.
If the vaccine has success, I have hope that a few tourists will start traveling and maybe we can get a few safaris in June or July. It will not be the same, but it is something and that is where our hope lies.
Joe Townshend, 33,
commercial airline pilot
The first blow to my career came before the pandemic, in September 2019, when the Thomas Cook group collapsed. That was my first commercial pilot role and I had worked for them for 11 years before I lost my job.
Thankfully, the industry was quite buoyant at that time and I managed to get a job in January last year with a small company called Titan Airways that specializes in VIP charter work and high-end travel.
Then the pandemic hit in March. They realized there was no money coming in for the foreseeable future, so they let me go. In the aviation industry, it is common for the last one to join to be the first one to leave.
I couldn’t believe it. I have a partner, two small children and a mortgage. I knew I wasn’t going to get another flying job with the way the travel industry was, so I had to look for something that would bring in any sort of income. In May, I managed to get a job as a delivery driver for Ocado, the U.K. online supermarket.
I took an 80% pay cut from my pilot job. We had to go through our finances and shave off everything that wasn’t a necessity like private health care, subscriptions, gym memberships. It has been a really trying time to live on one salary, which is effectively minimum wage. The numbers don’t always match up on a monthly basis in terms of what comes in and what goes out, even after selling my car and taking other measures to save money.
I’ve also started a specialty coffee company called Altitude Coffee London. It’s heavily themed in aviation, which is obviously my background. I built it myself with my dad, who had a commercial property that we turned it into a production factory for roasting specialty grade coffee, which we sell to consumers online.
I have a few people come in and help, but it’s basically just me roasting the coffee, packing it up and getting it out to customers when I’m not delivering for Ocado. The reception so far has been really positive, but obviously we have some way to go to establish ourselves in the market, which is highly competitive.
I’ll definitely go back to flying when jobs become available, but I think it will be a while for people like me who have been made redundant. We’re probably looking at 2022 or 2023. Flying is something that is ingrained in you forever and there’s not really any other experience you can liken it to. Everyday going to work and seeing a blue sky and beautiful scenery and chatting away to someone who is as passionate about the job as you are for eight to 10 hours.
Matteo Gabbrielli, 46, tour guide
My wife, Erika Cornali, and I have both been full-time tour guides in Venice for 11 years, and like 90% of tour guides in Italy, we are self employed. Until the pandemic, the job was very rewarding and allowed us to settle down. We bought a house that we love, and thankfully we do not have to pay a mortgage anymore.
Venice has a deep history in tourism. It has been in the Grand Tour since the 1600s and 1700s. Our association of tour guides in Venice dates back to the end of the 1970s. So, for a city that is so deeply involved in the tourism sector, this pandemic has been a big shock and it’s still a dramatic situation.
I keep an Excel spreadsheet of my services and when I look at 2019, I see that I gave 290 tours all year round. In 2020, I gave just 55.
We are lucky because we have some savings, so I am not worried about tomorrow, but I am worried about what happens after tomorrow. I know we can manage until the end of this year with this crisis, but we have two children, and we need to think about their future.
It seems that things will come back slowly, which is worrying because there will not be as much work to go around. We are used to millions of tourists each year, thousands on a daily basis, but now you see very little activity, and tour guides find themselves in a desperate situation some of them going to the train station holding up signs.
It has also been tough on the mental condition. If you are used to working every day of your life, sometimes twice or three jobs per day, and then suddenly you find yourself with nothing to do. You need something for your mind, not only for your pocket.
I know life will go back to what it was eventually, just as it did after the London and Paris terrorist attacks, but how long will this crisis last we just don’t know. I worry for Venice, because our local population is already in decline and with no economic activity, more people will be forced to leave.