2020 has seen tourism plunging to levels seen 30 years ago as one to 1.1 billion international travellers vanished due to the Covid-19 crisis. However, the UNWTO remains confident of a rebound as the demand for travel remains strong around the world.

There will be a brand-new way to practice tourism activities once the Covid-19 starts to recede. This is the conclusion of UNWTO experts on the future evolution of tourism. it is true that the new wave of the virus gives little space to optimism. A new range of restrictions around the world is likely to further depress demand for travel during the first quarter.

But looking ahead, the UNWTO seems reasonably optimistic: the announcement and the roll-out of various vaccines are expected to gradually increase consumer confidence and contribute to ease travel restrictions over the course of 2021.

Last year, the UNWTO estimates that international visitors arrivals plunged by over 70% around the world, declining to some 400 million international arrivals.

Western Europe was 2021 top performer

After a short recovery in summer, results worsened again from September, weighed down by the spike in Covid-19 cases. Consequently, the reintroduction of travel restrictions and advisories, particularly in Europe, and the ongoing border closures in many destinations, had a devastating effect.

The UN agency estimates that the world lost US$1.1 trillion in international tourism receipts in 2020. This plunge in international tourism could translate into an economic loss of over US$2 trillion in global GDP. This is more than 2% of the world’s GDP in 2019.

Some parts of the world managed better than others. Western Europe, thanks to the policy of borders’ reopening within the European Union, recorded a decline of “only” 63.1% for the first 10 months of 2020. Austria was the top performer as it managed to keep the decline in total arrivals’ to 46.2%.

Among the best performers in this unusual year, Subsaharan Africa was down by -63.8%. The region remained indeed relatively immune to the virus. The Caribbean recorded a decline of 65.1% as most countries kept their borders open.

On the other hand, Asia-Pacific was the worst performer. North-East Asia – which includes China, Japan and South Korea – saw tourist arrivals collapsing by 88.2%. It was followed by ASEAN (Southeast Asia) with a decline of 78%. Third worst performer of 2020 was North Africa with international arrivals down by 76.2% from January through October.

A brand new tourism world

Tourism is due to come back, but it will certainly take a new shape. The UNWTO points to a strong domestic market demand and a shift to regional movements rather than long-haul trips. The latter suffer from time-consuming health and safety measures and cancellation policies. These, says the UNWTO, are consumers’ main concerns.

Travellers will go for “staycations” or vacations close to home. Nature and open-air activities will be favoured with rural tourism and road trips to turn into top performers. This will give secondary destinations an opportunity to gain international recognition.

Looking ahead, the announcement and the roll-out of a vaccine are expected to gradually increase consumer confidence and contribute to ease travel restrictions.

Zurab Pololokashvili, Secretary-General of the UNWTO will continue to support world tourism recovery in 2021.
Zurab Pololikashvili, Secretary-General of the UNWTO looks forward to tourism recovery in 2021 (Photo:

UNWTO’s extended scenarios for 2021-2024 point to a rebound in international tourism by the second half of 2021. Nonetheless, a return to 2019 levels could take two-and-a-half to four years.

The World Tourism Organisation elaborated three scenarios. The most optimistic scenario points to 800 million to one billion international arrivals in 2021; a medium scenario anticipates 600 to 800 million arrivals while the most pessimistic one forecasts less than 600 million arrivals.

The UNWTO was very active last year. A Global Tourism Crisis Committee was created in March to coordinates international efforts.

This unique cross-sector platform has proven to be crucial in guiding a response to COVID-19 and informing the measures and tools for mitigating its impact. In 2021, the committee is geared towards accelerating the restart of tourism. It advocates that harmonised, consistent travel protocols are essential for restoring confidence in international travel.

Photo – top of page: According to UNWTO data, Austria recorded a decline of “only” 46.2% in 2020, the best performance in Europe (Photo : Innsbruck by Cleverdis / L. Citrinot)

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