The biggest and hardest question to answer in the hospitality world today is when will a true rebound from the pandemic begin. While the answer remains elusive, the venerable UNWTO and it panel of experts reported this week that most tourism professionals (61%) see better prospects for 2022. While 58% expect a rebound in 2022, mostly during the third quarter, 42% point to a potential rebound only in 2023. A majority of experts (64%) now expect international arrivals to return to 2019 levels only in 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 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% to 78% in 2022 compared to 2021. However, this would still be 50% to 63% below pre-pandemic levels.
In addition to emerging variants, travel restrictions and uneven vaccination roll-out, the UNWTO said 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.
In 2021, the UNWTO preliminarily reported a 4% rise in international tourist arrivals (415 million versus 400 million). However, arrivals were still 72% below pre-pandemic levels. International tourism rebounded moderately during the second half of 2021, with international arrivals down 62% in both the third and fourth quarters compared to pre-pandemic levels. According to limited data, international arrivals in December were 65% below 2019 levels. The full impact of the Omicron variant and surge in COVID-19 cases is yet to be seen.
The pace of recovery remains slow and uneven across world regions. Europe and the Americas recorded the strongest results in 2021 compared to 2020 (+19% and +17% respectively), but still both 63% below pre-pandemic levels.
By subregion, the Caribbean saw the best performance (+63% above 2020, though 37% below 2019), with some destinations coming close to, or exceeding pre-pandemic levels. Southern Mediterranean Europe (+57%) and Central America (+54%) also enjoyed a significant rebound but remain 54% and 56% down on 2019 levels respectively. North America (+17%) and Central Eastern Europe (+18%) also climbed above 2020 levels.
Meanwhile, Africa saw a 12% increase in arrivals in 2021 compared to 2020, though this is still 74% below 2019. In the Middle East arrivals declined 24% compared to 2020 and 79% over 2019. In Asia and the Pacific arrivals were still 65% below 2020 levels and 94% 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. Export revenues from international tourism could exceed US$700 billion in 2021, a small improvement over 2020 due to higher spending per trip, but less than half the US$1.7 trillion recorded in 2019.
Average receipts per arrival are estimated to reach US$1,500 in 2021, up from US$1,300 in 2020. France and Belgium reported comparatively smaller declines in tourism expenditure with -37% and -28%, respectively over 2019. Saudi Arabia (-27%) and Qatar (-2%) also posted somewhat better results in 2021.