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Tourism charts a slow recovery to 2023

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MADRID, 19 January 2022: UNWTO reported a 4% rise in international tourist arrivals in 2021 when compared with 2020’s ground zero performance, but 2021 remained a challenging year as arrivals were still down 72% on pre-pandemic levels.

UNWTO’s panel of tourism experts reckon the long road to recovery could start in the third quarter of 2022, but 42% pointed to a potential rebound only in 2023, while the majority of experts cautioned reaching pre-pandemic levels may not be in sight until 2024 or beyond.

UNWTO, in its first issue of the World Tourism Barometer 2022, warned recovery needs stronger coordination and increased vaccination rates.

It indicates that rising rates of vaccination, combined with the easing of travel restrictions due to increased cross-border coordination and protocols, have all helped release pent up demand.

International tourism rebounded moderately during the second half of 2021, with international arrivals down 62% in both the third and fourth quarters compared to pre-pandemic levels. According to limited data, international arrivals in December were 65% below 2019 levels. The full impact of the Omicron variant and surge in Covid-19 cases is yet to be seen.

Slow and uneven recovery

The pace of recovery remains slow and uneven across world regions due to varying degrees of mobility restrictions, vaccination rates and traveller confidence. Europe and the Americas recorded the strongest results in 2021 compared to 2020 (+19% and +17%, respectively), but still both 63% below pre-pandemic levels.

By subregion, the Caribbean saw the best performance (+63% above 2020, though 37% below 2019), with some destinations coming close to or exceeding pre-pandemic levels. Southern Mediterranean Europe (+57%) and Central America (+54%) also enjoyed a significant rebound but remain 54% and 56% down on 2019 levels, respectively. North America (+17%) and Central Eastern Europe (+18%) also climbed above 2020 levels.

Meanwhile, Africa saw a 12% increase in arrivals in 2021 compared to 2020, though this is still 74% below 2019. In the Middle East, arrivals declined 24% compared to 2020 and 79% over 2019. In Asia and the Pacific, arrivals were still 65% below 2020 levels and 94% when compared to pre-pandemic values, as many destinations remained closed to non-essential travel. 

Increased tourism spending

The economic contribution of tourism in 2021 (measured in tourism direct gross domestic product) is estimated at USD1.9 trillion, above the USD1.6 trillion in 2020, but still well below the pre-pandemic value of USD3.5 trillion. Export revenues from international tourism could exceed USD700 billion in 2021, a small improvement over 2020 due to higher spending per trip, but less than half the USD1.7 trillion recorded in 2019.

Average receipts per arrival are estimated to reach USD1,500 in 2021, up from USD1,300 in 2020. This is due to large pent-up savings and longer lengths of stay, as well as higher transport and accommodation prices. France and Belgium reported comparatively smaller declines in tourism expenditure with -37% and -28%, respectively, over 2019. Saudi Arabia (-27%) and Qatar (-2%) also posted somewhat better results in 2021.

Outlook for 2022

According to the latest UNWTO Panel of Experts, most tourism professionals (61%) see better prospects for 2022. At the same time, 58% expect a rebound in 2022, mostly during the third quarter, 42% point to a potential rebound only in 2023. A majority of experts (64%) now expect international arrivals to return to 2019 levels only in 2024 or later, up from 45% in the September survey.

The UNWTO Confidence Index shows a slight decline in January-April 2022. A rapid and more widespread vaccination rollout, followed by a major lifting of travel restrictions and more coordination and clearer information on travel protocols, are the main factors identified by experts for the effective recovery of international tourism. UNWTO scenarios indicate that international tourist arrivals could grow by 30% to 78% as compared to 2021. However, this is still 50% to 63% below pre-pandemic levels.

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. At the same time, the vaccination rollout remains uneven, and many destinations still have their borders completely closed, mostly in Asia and the Pacific.

A challenging economic environment could put additional pressure on the effective recovery of international tourism, with the surge in oil prices, increase in inflation, the potential rise in interest rates, high debt volumes and the continued disruption in supply chains. However, the ongoing tourism recovery in many markets, mostly in Europe and the Americas, coupled with the widespread vaccination rollout and a major coordinated lifting of travel restrictions, could help to restore consumer confidence and accelerate the recovery of international tourism in 2022. 

While international tourism bounces back, domestic tourism continues to drive recovery of the sector in an increasing number of destinations, particularly those with large domestic markets. According to experts, domestic tourism and travel close to home, as well as open-air activities, nature-based products and rural tourism, are among the major travel trends that will continue shaping tourism in 2022.

(Source: UNWTO)

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