Despite Europe’s strong summer rebound, international tourist arrivals are forecast to be 60% below 2019 by the end of 2021 according to the European Travel Commission (ETC). Although European travel demand is poised for a major recovery in 2022, volumes are still far from the pre-pandemic levels which are not expected to return until 2024.
The most recent edition of the “European Tourism Trends & Prospects” quarterly report from the European Travel Commission (ETC) continues to monitor the Covid-19 impact on the sector, examining how travel activity is rebounding amid the current wave of infections and ongoing vaccination programmes.
According to the ETC, a potential return of the pandemic during the winter months and the continuous absence of intercontinental markets will continue to dampen the perspectives for a stronger recovery.
Europe currently has the highest vaccination rate of the world’s regions, which is expected to enable the release of significant pent-up demand. In fact, European destinations already enjoyed a stronger than expected summer season owing to successful vaccination programmes. Moreover, the creation of the EU Digital Covid-19 Certificate was fundamental to ensuring safe travel across the region and helped to simplify cross-border mobility. Intra-regional travel consequently experienced an uplift and is set to account for 85% of European international arrivals in 2021, up from 77% in 2019.
Greece and Croatia took the lead in market recovery over the summer
The travel recovery observed has been different across destinations, with those that reopened their borders earlier to vaccinated travellers being the most favoured. As the first nation to reopen to COVID-free tourists, Greece delivered the strongest rebound in overnight terms (-19% vs. 2019), although foreign arrivals were weak.
The strongest pick up in arrivals from 2019 rates was observed in Croatia (-37%), which was able to extend its outstanding performance into off-season, welcoming 1.9 million tourist arrivals in September. In contrast, Czech Republic (-94%) recorded the sharpest decline with stringent COVID-19 measures extended throughout the year.
All reporting European destinations enjoyed higher levels of hotel occupancy this summer compared to 2020, based on data for July-September. Several destinations reported occupancy rates close to 70%, including Slovenia, the UK, Monaco and Turkey. European air passenger growth also gained momentum over the months of June (-69%), July (-57%) and August (-49%) compared to 2019, although global revenue passenger kilometres (RPKs) in August remained half of pre-COVID-19 levels. The relative improvement throughout the summer months was mainly driven by domestic air travel demand.
A long road ahead
Although European travel has made positive strides in 2021, there is still a long road ahead as international tourist arrivals to Europe were still down 77% half-way through the year. A slower vaccine rollout across Eastern Europe, and in some large long-haul source markets, may potentially delay the recovery, presenting a lingering downside risk.
ETC also observed a notable absence of long-haul travellers, with US arrivals to Europe remaining 90% below their 2019 levels for one third of reporting destinations. The absence of Chinese holidaymakers was also sorely felt across Europe, with all reporting destinations posting declines over 90% compared to 2019. Although long-haul travel sentiment remains weak, willingness among Chinese to travel to Europe grew from a 69-point index in September 2020 to 92 in September 2021.
Australia, Brazil and Canada inbound to Europe are also 90% below their 2019 performance while India is down by 85%.
Overall, international tourist arrivals to Europe are forecast to be 60% below 2019 by the end of 2021 with many other factors continuing to weigh on Europe’s tourism recovery. These include ever-changing COVID-19 restrictions and policies, renewed outbreaks and the confusion around the colour-coded EU travel system applied differently across European destinations. The adoption of different systems for accepting non-EMA recognised vaccines may also continue to impact destinations heavily reliant on long-haul travel.