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Global Tourism Grows 4% But Remains Far Below 2019 Levels

Global tourism experienced a four percent upturn in 2021, compared to 2020 (415 million versus 400 million). However, international tourist arrivals (overnight visitors) were still 72 percent below the pre-pandemic year of 2019, according to preliminary estimates by the United Nations World Tourism Organization (UNWTO). This follows on from 2020, the worst year on record for tourism, when international arrivals decreased by 73 percent.

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

Europe and the Americas recorded the strongest results in 2021 compared to 2020 ( up 19 percent and 17 percent, respectively), but both still 63 percent below pre-pandemic levels. Other regions fared worse.

Recovery is expected to continue this year but still fall short of 2019 passenger levels. According to the latest UNWTO Panel of Experts, most tourism professionals (61 percent) see better prospects for 2022. While 58 percent expect a rebound in 2022, mostly during the third quarter, 42 percent point to a potential rebound only in 2023. A majority of experts (64 percent) now expect international arrivals to return to 2019 levels only in 2024 or later, up from 45 percent in the September survey.

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, 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 percent in 2022 compared to 2021. However, this would still be 50 to 63 percent 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 roll-out 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, potential rise in interest rates, high debt volumes and the continued disruption in supply chains, the UNWTO said. 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.