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Global tourism strengthens in 2021 but still far below pre-COVID levels

Short on time? Here are the highlights:

  • International tourism strengthened somewhat in the third quarter of 2021 but remains considerably below 2019 levels
  • The main factors influencing recovery in the tourism sector are international border restrictions, vaccine acceptance, and vaccination rates

In the latest release from its World Tourism Barometer, the UN World Tourism Organization (UNWTO) reports that international tourist arrivals increased by 58% for July-September 2021 compared to the same period in 2020.

Even with that growth, however, tourism levels for Q3 2021 remain about 64% below 2019 levels. Following weaker performance earlier in the year, overall arrivals for the first nine months of 2021 are 76% below per-pandemic levels.

“The uplift in demand was driven by increased traveler confidence amid rapid progress on vaccinations and the easing of entry restrictions in many destinations,” the UNWTO said. The UN agency reported separately, however, that travel limits are still widespread. As of 26 November, 98% of all destinations worldwide still had some type of travel restrictions in place. Also as of late-November, roughly one in five countries had their borders closed to tourism altogether.

UNWTO Secretary-General Zurab Pololikashvili added, “The safe easing or lifting of restrictions on travel are essential for the restart of tourism and the return of the social and economic benefits the sector offers. The trend towards destinations taking evidence-based approaches to restrictions reflects the evolving nature of the pandemic will also help restore confidence in travel while helping keep both tourists and tourism workers safe.”

Perhaps not surprisingly given those varying rules and restrictions, the UNWTO has also observed that tourism recovery is quite uneven across countries and regions. “While Europe (-53%) and the Americas (-60%) enjoyed a relative improvement during the third quarter of 2021, arrivals in Asia and the Pacific were down 95% compared to 2019 as many destinations remained closed to non-essential travel. Africa and the Middle East recorded 74% and 81% drops respectively in the third quarter of 2021 as compared to 2019.”

Going forward, the agency adds that, “Uneven vaccination rates around the world and new Covid-19 strains could impact the already slow and fragile recovery. The economic strain caused by the pandemic could also weigh on travel demand, aggravated by the recent spike in oil prices and disruption of supply chains.”

Current forecasts anticipate that global tourism will remain 70-75% below 2019 levels for the full 2021 calendar year. This equates to roughly US$2 trillion in direct economic impact for the industry globally – a very similar loss as the one recorded for 2020.

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