World tourism experienced an increase of 4% in 2021, compared to 2020 (415 million vs. 400 million). However, international tourist arrivals (overnight visitors) remained 72% below those of 2019, the year before the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, according to preliminary estimates from the OWorld Tourism Organization (IN ORDER TO).
This is revealed by the first issue of 2022 of the UNWTO World Tourism Barometer, noting that rising vaccination rates, combined with easing travel restrictions due to increased cross-border coordination and new protocols, have helped release pent-up demand.
International tourism picked up moderately in the second half of 2021, with arrivals in the third and fourth quarters 62% lower than pre-pandemic.
Based on limited data, international tourist arrivals in December were 65% lower than in 2019.
The true impact of the omicron variant and the wave of COVID-19 infections remains to be seen.
A 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 best results in 2021 compared to 2020 (+19% and +17% respectively), but both are still 63% below pre-COVID-19 pandemic levels.
By subregion, the Caribbean recorded the best results (+63% above 2020, although 37% below 2019), with some destinations approaching or exceeding pre-pandemic levels.
Southern Mediterranean Europe (+57%) and Central America (+54%) also enjoyed a significant rebound, but remain 54% and 56% respectively below 2019 levels. North America (+17% ) and Central and Eastern Europe (+18%) also exceeded 2020 levels.
Meanwhile, Africa saw a 12% increase in arrivals in 2021 compared to 2020, although they are still 74% lower than in 2019.
In the Middle East arrivals decreased by 24% compared to 2020 and 79% compared to 2019. In Asia and the Pacific arrivals remained 65% below 2020 levels and 94% compared to pre-2020 levels. the pandemic, as many destinations remained closed to non-essential travel.
Increase in tourist spending
The economic contribution of tourism in 2021 (measured in direct gross domestic product from tourism) is estimated at $1.9 trillion, up from $1.6 trillion in 2020, but still well below the pre-pandemic value of $3.5 trillion.
International tourism export receipts could exceed $700 billion in 2021, a small improvement over 2020 due to higher spending per trip, but less than half the $1.7 trillion recorded in 2019.
Median receipts per arrival are estimated to reach $1,500 in 2021, up from $1,300 in 2020. This is due to large cumulative savings and longer lengths of stay, as well as higher transportation and accommodation prices.
France and Belgium recorded comparatively minor declines in tourism spending, at -37% and -28%, respectively, from 2019. Saudi Arabia (-27%) and Qatar (-2%) also performed somewhat better in 2021.
Outlook for 2022
According to the last UNWTO Group of Experts, the majority of tourism professionals (61%) see better prospects for 2022. While 58% expect a rebound in 2022, especially during the third quarter, 42% foresee a possible rebound only in 2023. A majority of Experts (64%) now expect international arrivals not to return to 2019 levels until 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 rollout of vaccination, followed by a major lifting of travel restrictions, as well as increased coordination and clearer information on travel protocols, are the main factors pointed out by the experts for the effective recovery of international tourism.
UNWTO scenarios indicate that international tourist arrivals could grow between 30% and 78% compared to 2021.
However, these are percentages that are still 50% and 63% below pre-pandemic levels.
The recent increase in cases of COVID-19 and the omicron variant are set to disrupt the recovery and affect confidence until early 2022, as some countries re-introduce travel bans and restrictions for certain markets. At the same time, vaccination rollout remains uneven and many destinations still have their borders completely closed, particularly in Asia and the Pacific.
A difficult economic environment could put additional pressure on the effective recovery of international tourism, with rising oil prices, rising inflation, possible interest rate hikes, high debt volumes and continued disruption of supply chains.
However, the recovery of tourism that is taking place in many markets, especially in Europe and the Americas, together with the widespread rollout of vaccination and a major coordinated lifting of travel restrictions, it could help restore consumer confidence and accelerate the recovery of international tourism in 2022.
While international tourism recovers, domestic tourism continues to drive the sector’s recovery in a growing number of destinations, particularly those with large domestic markets.
According to experts, domestic tourism and travel close to home, as well as outdoor activities, nature-based products and rural tourism are some of the main travel trends that will continue to shape tourism in 2022.