Global tourism experienced a 4 percent upturn in 2021, compared to 2020 (415 million versus 400 million), the World Tourism Organization (UNWTO) said on Tuesday.
However, as highlighted in the latest issue of the UNWTO World Tourism Barometer, international tourist arrivals (overnight visitors) were still 72 percent below the pre-pandemic year of 2019. This follows on from 2020, the worst year on record for tourism, when international arrivals decreased by 73 percent.
According to the UNWTO, tourism professionals are now expecting international arrivals to return to 2019 levels only in 2024 or later.
The global tourism industry suffered a huge blow in 2020 due to lockdowns and travel restrictions to deal with the spread of Covid-19 that forced people around the world to limit their activities.
The UNWTO World Tourism Barometer indicates that rising rates of vaccination, combined with easing of travel restrictions due to increased cross-border coordination and protocols, have all helped release pent up demand, which led to international tourism rebounding moderately during the second half of 2021.
However, the spread of the Omicron variant in December caused bookings again to drop. The UNWTO notes that the full impact of the Omicron variant and surge in COVID-19 cases is yet to be seen.
“The pace of recovery remains slow and uneven across world regions due to varying degrees of mobility restrictions, vaccination rates and traveler confidence,” the UNWTO says.
Southern Mediterranean Europe, Central America and the Caribbean enjoyed a significant rebound in arrivals in 2021 but remain 54 percent, 56 percent and 37 percent down on 2019 levels respectively.
Meanwhile, the number of arrivals in the Middle East and Asia-Pacific region continued to decline in 2021, reaching 79 percent and 94 percent when compared to pre-pandemic values as many destinations remained closed to non-essential travel.
The economic contribution of tourism in 2021 (measured in tourism direct gross domestic product) is estimated at US$1.9 trillion, above the US$1.6 trillion in 2020, but still well below the pre-pandemic value of US$ 3.5 trillion.
Outlook for 2022
According to a majority (65 percent) of tourism professionals surveyed by the UNWTO in December, international arrivals are now expected to return to 2019 levels only in 2024 or later, up from 45 percent in the September survey.
“The recent rise in COVID-19 cases and the Omicron variant are set to disrupt the recovery and affect confidence through early 2022 as some countries reintroduce travel bans and restrictions for certain markets,” according to the UNWTO.
The main factors identified by the UNWTO Panel of Experts for the effective recovery of international tourism include a rapid and more widespread vaccination roll-out, followed by a major lifting of travel restrictions, and more coordination and clearer information on travel protocols.
UNWTO scenarios indicate that international tourist arrivals could grow by 30 percent to 78 percent in 2022 compared to 2021. However, this would still be 50 percent to 63 percent below pre-pandemic levels.