The devastating effect of the COVID-19 pandemic on the tourism sector was further highlighted as the latest data from the World Tourism Organization (UNWTO) disclosed that destinations worldwide welcomed one billion fewer international arrivals in 2020 than in the previous year, due to an unprecedented fall in demand and widespread travel restrictions.
This represents a 74% decline and also pales in comparison with the 4% decline recorded during the 2009 global economic crisis.
According to the latest UNWTO World Tourism Barometer, the collapse in international travel represents an estimated loss of USD 1.3 trillion in export revenues – more than 11 times the loss recorded during the 2009 global economic crisis. The crisis has put between 100 and 120 million direct tourism jobs at risk, many of them in small and medium-sized enterprises.
A breakdown of the decline showed that Asia and the Pacific with -84% decline – the first region to suffer the impact of the pandemic and the one with the highest level of travel restrictions currently in place – recorded the largest decrease in arrivals in 2020 (300 million fewer). They were followed by the Middle East and Africa with a 75% decline.
Europe recorded a 70% decrease in arrivals, despite a small and short-lived revival in the summer of 2020. The region suffered the largest drop in absolute terms, with over 500 million fewer international tourists in 2020.
The Americas saw a 69% decrease in international arrivals, following somewhat better results in the last quarter of the year.
Meanwhile, the latest UNWTO Panel of Experts survey shows a mixed outlook for 2021. Almost half of the respondents (45%) envisaged better prospects for 2021 compared to last year, while 25% expect similar performance, and 30% foresee a worsening of results in 2021.
The overall prospects of a rebound in 2021 seem to have worsened. 50% of respondents now expect 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 a growing demand for open-air and nature-based tourism activities, with domestic tourism and ‘slow travel’ experiences gaining increasing interest.
To this effect, UNWTO Secretary-General Zurab Pololikashvili opined that the worst is over while calling for measures to be instituted to aid the recovery of tourism.
“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” he said.