If there was any doubt, the United Nations World Tourism Organization’s (UNWTO) latest data on international tourism arrivals, makes it crystal clear that the 2020 was the “worst year on record” for the tourism industry.
UNWTO reports that international arrivals dropped by 74%, with destinations welcoming 1 billion fewer international arrivals in 2020 compared to 2019, due to
an unprecedented fall in demand and widespread travel restrictions.
The only comparison to the 2020 numbers would be 2009, during the global economic crisis, when international tourist arrivals declined by 4%.
The collapse in international travel represents an estimated loss of US$1.3 trillion in export revenues — more than 11 times the loss recorded during the 2009 global economic crisis, according to the latest UNWTO World Tourism Barometer.
And it notes that the crisis has put between 100 and 120 million direct tourism jobs at risk, many of them in small and medium-sized enterprises.
The UNWTO observes that although much has been made of making safe international travel a possibility, and indicates that it’s aware that the crisis is far from over
Due to the evolving nature of the pandemic, many countries are now reintroducing stricter travel restrictions. These include mandatory testing, quarantines and in some cases a complete closure of borders, all weighing on the resumption of international travel.
At the same time, the UNWTO points out, the gradual rollout of a COVID-19 vaccine is expected to help restore consumer confidence, contribute to the easing travel restrictions and slowly normalize travel during the year ahead.
UNWTO Secretary-General Zurab Pololikashvili said: “While much has been made in making safe international travel a possibility, we are aware that the crisis is far from over. The harmonization, coordination and digitalization of COVID-19 travel-related risk reduction measures, including testing, tracing and vaccination certificates, are essential foundations to promote safe travel and prepare for the recovery of tourism once conditions allow.”
The latest UNWTO Panel of Experts survey shows a mixed outlook for 2021. Almost half of respondents (45%) envisaged better prospects for 2021 compared to last year, while 25% expect a similar performance and 30% foresee a worsening of results in 2021.
The overall prospects of a rebound in 2021 seem to have worsened, with 50% of respondents now expecting a rebound to occur only in 2022 as compared to 21% in October 2020.
The remaining half of respondents still see a potential rebound in 2021, though below the expectations shown in the October 2020 survey (79% expected recovery in 2021).
As and when tourism does restart, the UNWTO Panel of Experts foresee growing demand for open-air and nature-based tourism activities, with domestic tourism and ‘slow travel’ experiences gaining increasing interest.
Looking further ahead, most experts do not to see a return to pre-pandemic levels happening before 2023.
In fact, 43% of respondents point to 2023, while 41% expect a return to 2019 levels will only happen in 2024 or later. UNWTO’s extended scenarios for 2021 to 2024 indicate that it could take two-and-a-half to four years for international tourism to return to 2019 levels.