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Global tourism recovery might not be expected until 2024

The coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic not only had a significant impact on public health but also severely affected one of the linchpins of the global economy – the tourism industry. As many countries introduced curfews and travel restrictions to contain the spread of the virus, travel across the world significantly declined from early 2020 onwards. The financial repercussions of the coronavirus have already begun to manifest themselves within the tourism industry.

Global tourism experienced a 4% upturn in 2021, compared to 2020 (415 million versus 400 million). However, international tourist arrivals (overnight visitors) 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%.

While few industries have been spared by the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, even fewer have been hit as hard as the tourism sector. 

As 2021 drew to a close with severe limitations to travel still in place, the World Tourism Organization (UNWTO) reported that international tourist arrivals increased by just 4 percent last year, remaining 72 percent below 2019 levels. That equates to more than 1 billion fewer international arrivals compared to pre-pandemic levels, keeping the industry at levels last seen in the late 1980s.

Prior to the coronavirus outbreak, the global tourism sector had seen almost uninterrupted growth for decades. Since 1980, the number of international arrivals skyrocketed from 277 million to nearly 1.5 billion in 2019. As our chart shows, the two largest crises of the past decades, the SARS epidemic of 2003 and the global financial crisis of 2009, were minor bumps in the road compared to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Looking ahead, most experts no longer expect a full recovery until 2024 or later. While the UNWTO Panel of Experts is confident to see an uptick in travel activity this year, just 4 percent of the surveyed experts expect a full recovery in 2022. Roughly one-third of respondents believe that international arrivals will return to pre-pandemic levels in 2023, while 63 percent think it will take even longer than that. UNWTO scenarios predict that international tourist arrivals could grow between 30 and 78 percent in 2022 compared to 2021. While that sounds like a significant improvement, it would still be more than 50 percent below pre-pandemic levels.

The first 2022 issue of 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% 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.

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