UNWTO estimates tourism growth at 4% in 2021 and sees no recovery before Q3

Jean-Noël Escudié / P2C for Localtis

The World Tourism Organization (UNWTO) publishes its traditional “World Tourism Barometer”. This issue presents the first results for 2021 and outlines – or tries to outline – the outlook for 2022. In an ordinary year, these 2021 results would have been considered satisfactory. But they do show the tenacity of the world tourism collapse. And against the backdrop of the fifth wave of the pandemic, the outlook for 2022 is extremely uncertain.

Arrivals in 2021 are still 72% below 2019 levels

These data on world tourism are all the more important given that France, the world’s leading tourist destination, is highly dependent on its development. We saw this again recently when the sudden return of British tourists to Alpine ski resorts (25% of visitors) had a very positive impact.

In 2021, global international tourist arrivals grew by 4%, with 415 million international arrivals up from 400 the year before. But this progress is calculated for the year 2020, “which will have been the worst year in the history of tourism, characterized by a 73% drop in international arrivals”. As a result, arrivals in 2021 remain 72% below their pre-health crisis levels, i.e. compared to the reference year 2019. While international tourism saw a slight recovery in the second half of 2021 – with a drop of “only” 62% in international arrivals compared to the same period of 2019 – the drop rising to 65% in December 2021, and UNWTO estimates that “the impact of the Omicron variant and the explosion in cases of Covid-19 have yet to be fully determined.”

However, unlike 2020, the results are very uneven across continents. Europe and France tend to do better than the other countries, although they are still very far from the 2019 results. Compared to 2020, it is thus Europe and America that are showing the strongest increases (respectively +19% and +17%), but in both cases remained 63% below pre-pandemic levels. In terms of sub-regions, the best – or not so bad – performers in 2021 are the Caribbean (+63% compared to 2020, but still 37% below 2019), Southern Mediterranean Europe (+57%) and Central America (+ 54%), with these last two zones down 54% and 56% from 2019. On the other hand, the Middle East has fallen further by 24% compared to 2020. However, this is primarily the Asia-Pacific region, which explains this global average growth of 4%. In fact, international tourist arrivals are 65% below 2020 levels and 94% below 2019 levels… Suffice it to say that international tourism has almost disappeared in these areas, “many destinations remain closed to foreign travel.

A slight increase in tourism revenue

The results for tourism income are somewhat better.

The economic contribution of tourism in 2021 – measured by direct GDP from tourism and thus also domestic tourism – is thus estimated at 1,900 billion dollars. Again, this figure is higher than the 1,600 billion in 2020 (+19%), but is still very far from the figure before the health crisis, which was 3,500 billion.

If we look at international tourism export earnings alone, they “could top $700 billion in 2021, a slight improvement on 2020 due to increased spending per trip,” but that’s less than half of Q1 .7 trillion recorded in 2019. “

For its part, average revenue per international arrival should reach $1,500 in 2021, up from $1,300 in 2020 (+15%). The UNWTO explains this development “with the large savings accumulated and the lengthening of the length of stay as well as with the higher transport and accommodation prices”. Here, too, France will see rather more favorable results in terms of tourism spending in 2021. The decline in the latter compared to 2019 would be “only” 37%.

“Domestic tourism continues to drive the recovery of the sector”

As for the outlook, the trends are quite uncertain in a context that is still difficult to decipher. Nevertheless, “the latest indications from the UNWTO expert group are that most tourism professionals (61%) expect a more favorable outlook for 2022”. Among the members of the expert group, 58% expect a recovery in 2022, mainly in the third quarter, while 42% expect a potential recovery only in 2023. Signs of the fragility of forecasts in this area: in January 2022, a clear majority of UNWTO experts (64%) believe that the return of international arrivals to 2019 levels will not occur before 2024 or later, while 45% do at the survey in September 2021, i.e. before the fifth wave.

For its part, the UNWTO Confidence Index is showing signs of a slight decline for January-April 2022. Indeed, “the recent wave of Covid-19 cases and the Omicron variant are expected to disrupt the recovery and undermine confidence in early 2022, in which Knowing countries are reinstating travel bans and restrictions for certain markets.” Depending on the geographic area, UNWTO scenarios expect international tourist arrivals to grow by 30% to 78% compared to 2021. However, despite this expected increase, these figures will still be 50% to 63% below pre-pandemic levels.

Finally, as seen in France, UNWTO believes that “domestic tourism is driving the sector’s recovery in a growing number of destinations, particularly those with large domestic markets such as outdoor activities, nature-related products and rural tourism among the major travel trends that will also shape tourism in 2022.”

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