- UNWTO reports a 4% rise in international tourist arrivals in 2021
- However, 2021 was another challenging year: arrivals were still 72% down on pre-pandemic levels
- Recovery needs stronger coordination and increased vaccination rates
Global Tourism Pandemic
Global tourism experienced a 4% upturn in 2021 to reach 415 million arrivals, compared to 2020, During Pandemic which saw arrivals drop to 400 million.
However, international tourist arrivals were still 72% below the pre-pandemic year of 2019, according to preliminary estimates by UNWTO. This follows on from 2020, the worst year on record for tourism when international arrivals decreased by 73%.
The first 2022 issue of the UNWTO World Tourism Barometer shows 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.
International tourism rebounded moderately during the second half of 2021, with international arrivals down 62% in 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 most robust results in 2021 compared to 2020 (+19% and +17%, respectively), but still both 63% below pre-pandemic levels.
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%) 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% 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 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. Export revenues from international tourism could exceed US$700 billion in 2021, a slight improvement over 2020 because of higher spending per trip, but less than half the US$1.7 trillion recorded in 2019.
Average receipts per arrival are estimated to reach US$1,500 in 2021, up from US$1,300 in 2020. This is because of 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 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, mainly during the third quarter, an42% vs 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 significant 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 show 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 will disrupt the recovery and affect confidence through early 2022, as some countries reintroduce travel bans and restrictions for specific markets. 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 additionally pressure the effective recovery of international tourism, with the surge in oil prices, increase in inflation, a 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 speed up 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,