Global tourism experienced a 4 per cent upturn in 2021, compared to 2020 (415 million versus 400 million). However, international tourist arrivals (overnight visitors) were still 72 per cent 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 per cent.
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 per cent in both the third and fourth quarters compared to pre-pandemic levels. According to limited data, international arrivals in December were 65 per cent 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 traveler confidence. Europe and the Americas recorded the strongest results in 2021 compared to 2020, but still both 63 per cent below pre-pandemic levels.
Africa saw a 12 per cent increase in arrivals in 2021 compared to 2020, though this is still 74 per cent below 2019 and in the Middle East, arrivals declined 24 per cent compared to 2020 and 79 per cent over 2019. In Asia and the Pacific arrivals were still 65 per cent below 2020 levels and 94 per cent 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 the latest UNWTO Panel of Experts, most tourism professionals (61 per cent) see better prospects for 2022. While 58 per cent expect a rebound in 2022, mostly during the third quarter, 42 per cent to a potential rebound only in 2023. A majority of experts (64 per cent) now expect international arrivals to return to 2019 levels only in 2024 or later.
The UNWTO Confidence Index shows a slight decline in January-April 2022. 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 per cent to 78 per cent as compared to 2021, however, this is still 50 per cent to 63 per cent 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. 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.