Tourism Grows by 4% in 2021, Remains Far Below Pre-Pandemic Levels

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According to the UNWTO, international visitor numbers climbed by 4% in 2021; nonetheless, the year was still challenging: arrivals were still 72 percent lower than pre-pandemic levels; recovery will require improved cooperation and increased vaccination rates.

In comparison to 2020, global tourism increased by 4% in 2021. (415 million versus 400 million). According to preliminary UNWTO estimates, international tourist arrivals (overnight visitors) were still 72 percent lower than the pre-pandemic year of 2019.


This follows on from 2020, which was the worst year for tourism on record, with international arrivals falling by 73 percent.

According to the first issue of the UNWTO World Tourism Barometer for 2022, improving vaccination rates, together with fewer travel restrictions due to improved cross-border coordination and regulations, have all contributed to the release of pent-up demand.

Reasons for the drastic drop in tourism

International arrivals were down 62 percent in both the third and fourth quarters of 2021, compared to pre-pandemic levels. International arrivals in December were 65 percent lower than in 2019, according to limited data. The entire impact of the Omicron variation and the increase in COVID-19 cases is not being determined.

Recovery has been slow and uneven.

Due to differing degrees of mobility limitations, vaccination rates, and traveler confidence, the pace of recovery remains slow and unequal across the globe. Europe and the Americas had the best outcomes in 2021 compared to 2020 (+19% and +17%), but they were still 63 percent behind pre-pandemic levels in both cases.

The Caribbean outperformed all other subregions (+63 percent over 2020, though 37 percent below 2019), with certain destinations approaching or exceeding pre-pandemic levels. Southern Mediterranean Europe (+57%) and Central America (+54%) also had considerable gains, but they are still 54 percent and 56 percent behind their 2019 levels, respectively. North America (+17%) and Central Eastern Europe (+18%) also outperformed their 2020 forecasts.

Meanwhile, arrivals in Africa increased by 12% in 2021 compared to 2020, while they are still 74 percent lower than in 2019. Arrivals in the Middle East decreased by 24% in 2020 and by 79 percent in 2019.

As many places remained closed to non-essential travel, arrivals in Asia and the Pacific were still 65 percent below 2020 levels and 94 percent below pre-pandemic levels.

Tourism spending has increased.

Tourism’s economic contribution in 2021 is anticipated to be US$1.9 trillion, up from US$1.6 trillion in 2020 but still significantly below the pre-pandemic value of US$ 3.5 trillion.

International tourist export revenues could top US$700 billion in 2021, a little increase over 2020 due to stronger per-trip expenditure, but still less than half of the US$1.7 trillion recorded in 2019.

In 2021, average arrival receipts are expected to reach $1,500, up from $1,300 in 2020. This is due to substantial untapped savings, longer stay lengths, and greater transportation and lodging costs.

With -37 percent and -28 percent decreases in tourism expenditures in 2019, France and Belgium were considerably less affected. Saudi Arabia (-27%) and Qatar (-2%), meanwhile, had slightly better performance in 2021.

2022 Prospects

Most tourism professionals (61 percent) expect greater prospects for 2022, according to the current UNWTO Panel of Experts. While 58 percent predict a rebound in 2022, primarily in the third quarter, 42 percent predict a rebound only in 2023.

International arrivals are only expected to return to 2019 levels in 2024 or later, according to a majority of experts (64 percent), up from 45 percent in September’s study

In January-April 2022, the UNWTO Confidence Index showed a modest drop. The essential conditions suggested by experts for the effective return of international tourism are a rapid and more broad vaccination roll-out, followed by a large removal of travel restrictions, and improved coordination and clearer information on travel regulations.

According to UNWTO projections, foreign visitor visits could increase by 30% to 78 percent by 2021, however, this is still 50% to 63 percent below pre-pandemic levels.

As some nations impose travel bans and limitations for select markets, the current spike in COVID-19 cases and the Omicron variant is projected to undermine the recovery and harm confidence into early 2022. At the same time, vaccine coverage is inconsistent, and several destinations, particularly in Asia and the Pacific, still have their borders blocked.

With the rise in oil prices, increase in inflation, prospective rise in interest rates, high debt levels, and prolonged disruption in supply chains, a hard economic environment could put additional pressure on the effective recovery of international tourism.

However, the ongoing tourist recovery in many areas, namely in Europe and the Americas, along with widespread vaccination and large coordinated removal of travel restrictions, may assist to restore consumer confidence and speed international tourism recovery in 2022.

Domestic tourism continues to drive recovery in an increasing number of destinations, particularly those with substantial domestic markets, even while international tourism recovers.

Domestic tourism and close-to-home travel, as well as open-air activities, nature-based products, and rural tourism, are among the primary travel trends that will continue to shape tourism in 2022, according to experts.

Editorial Team

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