Why 2020 was the worst year in the history of tourism

Why 2020 was the worst year in the history of tourism

According to the latest UNWTO World Tourism Barometer, the collapse in international travel represents an estimated loss of USD 1.3 trillion in export revenues – more than 11 times the loss recorded during the 2009 global economic crisis. The crisis has put between 100 and 120 million direct tourism jobs at risk, many of them in small and medium-sized enterprises.  

UNWTO secretary-general Zurab Pololikashvili said: “While much has been made in making safe international travel a possibility, we are aware that the crisis is far from over. The harmonization, coordination and digitalization of COVID-19 travel-related risk reduction measures, including testing, tracing and vaccination certificates, are essential foundations to promote safe travel and prepare for the recovery of tourism once conditions allow.”

Due to the evolving nature of the pandemic, many countries are now reintroducing stricter travel restrictions. These include mandatory testing, quarantines and, in some cases, a complete closure of borders — all weighing on the resumption of international travel. At the same time, the gradual rollout of a COVID-19 vaccine is expected to help restore consumer confidence, contribute to the easing travel restrictions and slowly normalize travel during the year ahead.

The latest UNWTO Panel of Experts survey shows a mixed outlook for 2021. Almost half of respondents (45 percent) envisage better prospects for 2021 compared to last year, while 25 percent expect a similar performance and 30 percent foresee a worsening of results in 2021.

The overall prospects of a rebound in 2021 seem to have worsened. Fifty percent of respondents now expect a rebound to occur only in 2022, compared to 21 percent in October 2020. The remaining respondents still see a potential rebound in 2021, though below the expectations shown in the October 2020 survey, where 79 percent expected recovery in 2021. How and when tourism restarts, the UNWTO Panel of Experts foresee growing demand for open-air and nature-based tourism activities, with domestic tourism and slow-travel experiences gaining more interest. 

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Looking further ahead, most experts do not see travel returning to pre-pandemic levels before 2023. In fact, 43 percent of respondents point to 2023, while 41 percent expect a return to 2019 levels will only happen in 2024 or later. The UNWTO’s extended scenarios for 2021 to 2024 indicate that it could take two-and-a-half to four years for international tourism to return to 2019 levels.

Asia and the Pacific (-84 percent) – the first region to suffer the impact of the pandemic and the one with the highest level of travel restrictions currently in place – recorded the largest decrease in arrivals in 2020 (300 million fewer). The Middle East and Africa both recorded a 75 percent decline.

Europe recorded a 70 percent decrease in arrivals, despite a small and short-lived revival in the summer of 2020. The region suffered the largest drop in absolute terms, with over 500 million fewer international tourists in 2020. The Americas saw a 69 percent decrease in international arrivals following somewhat better results in the last quarter of 2020.

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