(UNWTO) Tourism recovery gains momentum as restrictions ease and confidence rises

Tourism continues to recover apace. Globally, destinations received almost three times more international arrivals in the first quarter of 2022 than in the same period in 2021, with Europe leading the sector’s rebound.

According to the latest UNWTO World Tourism Barometer, international tourism experienced a 182% year-on-year increase in January-March 2022, with destinations worldwide receiving some 117 million international arrivals, up from 41 million in the first quarter of 2021. Of the 76 million additional international arrivals in the first three months, some 47 million were recorded in March, showing that the recovery is gaining momentum.

Europe and the Americas lead the recovery

UNWTO data show that, during the first quarter of 2022, Europe welcomed almost four times more international arrivals (+280%) than in the first quarter of 2021, with results driven by strong intra-regional demand. In the Americas, arrivals more than doubled (+117%) in the same three months. However, arrivals in Europe and the Americas remained 43% and 46% below 2019 levels, respectively.

The Middle East (+132%) and Africa (+96%) also experienced strong growth in Q1 2022 compared to 2021, but arrivals remained 59% and 61% below 2019 levels, respectively. Asia-Pacific recorded a 64% increase over 2021, but again levels were 93% below 2019 figures, as several destinations remained closed to non-core travel.

UNWTO Panel of Experts’ assessment and outlook for tourism performance.

By sub-region, the Caribbean and Southern Mediterranean Europe continue to show the fastest recovery rates. In both, arrivals recovered to almost 75% of 2019 levels, with some destinations reaching or exceeding pre-pandemic levels.

Destinations open up

Although international tourism remains 61% below 2019 levels, gradual recovery is expected to continue through 2022 as more destinations ease or lift travel restrictions and pent-up demand is released. As of 2 June, 45 destinations (of which 31 are in Europe) were free of COVID-19-related restrictions. In Asia, an increasing number of destinations have started to ease these restrictions.

UNWTO Panel of Experts’ assessment and outlook for tourism performance

Despite this positive outlook, the difficult economic situation coupled with the Russian Federation’s military offensive in Ukraine poses a risk to the recovery of international tourism. The Russian offensive on Ukraine so far seems to have had a limited direct impact on overall performance, although it is disrupting travel in Eastern Europe. However, the conflict is having significant economic repercussions globally, exacerbating already high oil prices and general inflation and disrupting international supply chains, resulting in higher transport and accommodation costs for the tourism sector.

Export earnings will recover more quickly as spending rises

The latest issue of the UNWTO Tourism Barometer also shows that US$ 1 billion in international tourism export earnings were lost in 2021, adding to the US$ 1 billion lost in the first year of the pandemic. Total tourism export receipts (including passenger transport receipts) reached an estimated USD 713 billion in 2021, a 4% increase in real terms over 2020, but still 61% below 2019 levels. International tourism receipts reached USD 602 billion, also 4% higher in real terms than in 2020. Europe and the Middle East recorded the best performance, with revenues rising to around 50% of pre-pandemic levels in both regions.

However, the amount spent per trip is on the rise: from an average of US$1,000 in 2019 to US$1,400 in 2021.

Stronger than expected recovery on the horizon

The latest UNWTO Confidence Index showed a marked rebound. For the first time since the start of the pandemic, the index returned to 2019 levels, reflecting increased optimism among tourism experts around the world, building on strong pent-up demand, particularly intra-European travel and travel from the United States to Europe.

According to the latest UNWTO Panel of Experts survey, an overwhelming majority of tourism professionals (83%) see better prospects for 2022 compared to 2021, provided the virus is contained and destinations continue to ease or lift travel restrictions. However, the ongoing closure of some major source markets, particularly in Asia and the Pacific, as well as uncertainty stemming from the Russia-Ukraine conflict, could delay the actual recovery of international tourism.

When do you expect international tourism to return to pre-pandemic levels in 2019 in your country?

More experts (48%) now see a possible return of international arrivals to 2019 levels in 2023 (up from 32% in the January survey), while the percentage indicating that this could happen in 2024 or later (44%) has decreased compared to the January survey (64%). Meanwhile, by the end of April, international air capacity in the Americas, Africa, Europe, the North Atlantic and the Middle East has reached or is close to 80% of pre-crisis levels and demand follows.

UNWTO has revised its outlook for 2022 due to stronger than expected results in the first quarter of 2022, a significant increase in flight bookings and the UNWTO Confidence Index outlook. International tourist arrivals are now expected to reach 55% to 70% of 2019 levels in 2022, depending on a number of circumstances, including the pace at which destinations continue to lift travel restrictions, developments in the war in Ukraine, possible new coronavirus outbreaks and global economic conditions, particularly inflation and energy prices.