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Vaccines and border openings beginning to drive some recovery in global tourism

Short on time? Here are the highlights:

  • Global forecasts point to continuing recovery in international travel volumes this year but most experts do not expect to return to pre-pandemic volumes until 2023 or 2024
  • Meanwhile, vaccine rollouts and border openings are the key factors in spurring a gradual recovery this year

The latest update from the UN World Tourism Organization (UNWTO) finds that global tourism is on the rise this year, albeit with travel patterns very mixed from region to region and still far below 2019 levels.

The UNWTO estimates that 54 million tourists crossed international borders in July 2021. This is down by two-thirds (67%) from the same month in 2019, but nevertheless represents the strongest single-month result since April 2020. The July 2021 figure compares to an estimated 34 million international arrivals in July 2020 and a benchmark of 164 million international travellers in July 2019.

“Most destinations reporting data for June and July 2021 saw a moderate rebound in international arrivals compared to 2020,” says the UNWTO. “Nevertheless, 2021 continues to be a challenging year for global tourism, with international arrivals down 80% in January-July compared to 2019.”

A recent survey of a global panel of tourism industry experts found that most expect recover to 2019 levels in 2023 (43%) or in 2024 or later (45%). Meanwhile, the UNWTO also notes a gradual increase in consumer confidence underpinned by the reopening of many destinations to international travel, and notably so in the Americas and in Europe. “The relaxation of travel restrictions for vaccinated travellers, coupled with progress made in the roll-out of COVID-19 vaccines, contributed to lifting consumer confidence and gradually restoring safe mobility in Europe and other parts of the world. In contrast, most destinations in Asia remain closed to non-essential travel,” adds a UNWTO release.

Commenting on the updated outlook, UNWTO Secretary-General Zurab Pololikashvili said, “There is clearly a strong demand for international tourism, and many destinations have started welcoming visitors back safely and responsibly. However, the true restart of tourism and the benefits it brings, remain on hold as inconsistent rules and regulations and uneven vaccination rates continue to affect confidence in travel.”

The UNWTO Panel of Experts survey provides a mixed forecast for the rest of this year, with just over half (53%) of respondents saying that they expect that travel volumes for the September-December period will be lower than expected. Only a third of panel members are now anticipated better-than-expected results for the rest of the year. UNWTO notes, however, that most expert panelists anticipate continued recovery into next year, “driven by unleashed pent-up demand for international travel in 2022, mostly during the second and third quarters.”

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