Global tourism remains below pre-pandemic levels

The improvement in world tourism observed at the end of 2021 is only a flash in the pan, if we dissect in more depth the first estimates of the World Tourism Organization (UNWTO). According to statistical data collected and made public recently by the organization, in 2021, world tourism increased by 4% compared to 2020, thus reaching 415 million against 400 million a year earlier. But despite this performance, it remains well below pre-pandemic levels. Since international tourist arrivals (overnight visitors) remained 72% lower than in 2019, the year before the pandemic, as the organization reported. “International tourism experienced a slight rebound in the second half of 2021, with international arrivals down 62% in the third quarter as in the fourth quarter compared to pre-pandemic levels”, according to the first edition of the year 2022 of the UNWTO World Tourism Barometer. Pending full determination of the impact of the Omicron variant and the explosion in Covid-19 cases, the limited data available shows that international arrivals in December were 65% below 2019 levels. Nevertheless, due to differences in mobility restrictions, vaccination rates and traveler confidence levels, it is clear that the pace of recovery in global tourism remains slow and uneven from a region of the world to another. It emerges from the analysis of data relating to this sector that Europe and the Americas recorded the strongest results in 2021 compared to 2020 (+19% and +17% respectively), even though these remained in both cases 63% below pre-pandemic levels. By sub-region, the organization's statistics suggest that the Caribbean posted the best performance (+63% compared to 2020, but 37% below 2019). Although remaining at levels 54% and 56% lower respectively than those of 2019, Southern Mediterranean Europe (+57%) and Central America (+54%) also benefited from a clear rebound. Note that North America (+17%) and Central and Eastern Europe (+18%) also exceeded 2020 levels. 2021 compared to 2020, even if the figures remain 74% lower than those of 2019”. While arrivals were down 24% compared to 2020 and 79% compared to 2019 in the Middle East, there is every reason to believe that in Asia-Pacific “arrivals were still 65% below 2020 levels and 94% lower than pre-pandemic figures, with many destinations remaining closed to non-essential travel,” UNWTO found. According to the organization, “the economic contribution of tourism in 2021 (measured in tourism direct gross domestic product) is estimated at 1.9 trillion USD, above the 1.6 trillion USD of 2020”. But as UNWTO pointed out in its report, it is still a long way from the pre-pandemic figures (3.5 trillion USD). As for international tourism export earnings, the UNWTO predicts that they “could exceed USD 700 billion in 2021, which represents a slight improvement compared to 2020 due to increased spending per trip, but this is less than half of the 1.7 trillion USD recorded in 2019”. With regard to the average level of receipts per arrival, the report drawn up by the organization estimates that it should reach 1,500 USD in 2021, against 1,300 USD in 2020. This variation would be due to the large volumes of accumulated savings and the longer stays, as well as higher transport and accommodation costs. In this regard, “France and Belgium report relatively lower declines in tourist spending, -37% and -28%, respectively, compared to 2019”, underlines the document arguing that Saudi Arabia (- 27%) and Qatar (-2%) also posted slightly better results in 2021. Looking to the current year, UNWTO experts report that most tourism professionals (61%) expect on a more favorable outlook for 2022. Indeed, “58% expect a rebound in 2022, mainly in the third quarter, and 42% expect a potential rebound only in 2023”, according to the report. Noting however that a majority (64%) of experts now believe that the return of international arrivals to 2019 levels will only occur in 2024 or later, compared to 45% according to the September survey. Alain Bouithy