International tourism not much better-off in 2021 despite a 19% revenue growth

International tourism’s revenue grew by 19% in 2021 as tourists spent more and stayed longer than in 2020. But the industry doesn’t expect a return to pre-pandemic volume before 2024. Six 6 months ago, the industry thought global tourism would recover by 2023.

International tourism 2021
International tourist arrivals grew by 4% in 2021 but the tourism industry is still far from recovering pre-pandemic levels | Maldives, 2018 © Asad Photo

With a 4% growth in international tourist arrivals in 2021 compared to 2020, the world tourism industry barely got better-off, the World Tourism Organization (UNWTO) reported on January 18.

All indicators are way below 2019 before the Covid-19 pandemic disrupted world travel. Industry professionals don’t expect international tourism will fully recover before 2024. Last June, the UN Conference on Trade and Development expected a comeback of international tourists to pre-pandemic levels for 2023.

Scenarios and forecasts seem to never stop being over-optimistic.

Lockdowns and travel restrictions in 2020 resulted in a huge drop of international arrivals: -74% in 2020 compared to 2019. It was like the international tourism industry went back to the 1980s.

In Indonesia, Bali only welcomed 37 international tourists per month between April 2020 and October 2021, compared to more than 6 million international travelers welcomed on the island in 2019.

The UNWTO reported a small rebound of activity in the second half of 2021 with rising vaccination rates and fewer travel restrictions.

International tourists spent more and stayed longer in 2021 than 2020

For the end of 2021, Peru offered more days off than usual to public administration employees to boost travel within the country and compensate for some losses from foreign tourists. Argentina expected a massive flow of tourists as it reimbursed 50% of travel bookings for its population and offered preferred conversion rates for international travelers.

But the spread of the Omicron variant in December slashed down global optimism, and bookings.

A poll from the UNWTO in December showed that 64% of tourism professionals didn’t expect a full recovery before 2024 or later. Last September, only 45% of them didn’t see a recovery before 2024.

The pace of recovery remains slow and uneven across world regions due to varying degrees of mobility restrictions, vaccination rates and traveler confidence“, the report said.

Australia decided on January 19 to waive visa applications for backpackers and international students, urging them to fill in jobs as the Omicron variant disrupted Australia’s workforce. Concurrently, the United States and the European Union advised against traveling in the country.

Southern Mediterranean Europe, Central America and the Caribbean saw the biggest increases in tourist arrivals compared with 2020. Nonetheless, they were still respectively 54%, 56% and 37% below 2019 numbers.

But Asia Pacific and the Middle East kept struggling.

The economies of developing countries are especially affected because international tourism acts as a transfer of money, mostly from more developed countries. Every dollar spent by an international tourist is like a foreign investment as it results in US$2.50 in the country’s GDP.

Global tourism’s direct gross product rose 19% in 2021 from 2020 to $1.9 trillion, the report said. Tourists spent more and stayed longer than in 2020. But the tourism industry’s revenue for the year barely surpassed its 2019 levels.

Tourism grows 4% in 2021 but remains far below pre-pandemic levels, UNWTO, January 2022, Free access

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