International tourist arrivals plunged 93% in June when compared to 2019, with the latest data from the World Tourism Organization showing the severe impact COVID-19 has had on the sector. According to the new issue of the World Tourism Barometer from the United Nations specialized agency, international tourist arrivals dropped by 65% during the first half of the year. This represents an unprecedented decrease, as countries around the world closed their borders and introduced travel restrictions in response to the pandemic.
Over recent weeks, a growing number of destinations have started to open up again to international tourists. UNWTO reports that, as of early September, 53% of destinations had eased travel restrictions. Nevertheless, many governments remain cautious, and this latest report shows that the lockdowns introduced during the first half of the year have had a massive impact on international tourism. The sharp and sudden fall in arrivals has placed millions of jobs and businesses at risk.
Counting the economic cost
According to UNWTO, the massive drop in international travel demand over the period January-June 2020 translates into a loss of 440 million international arrivals and about US$ 460 billion in export revenues from international tourism. This is around five times the loss in international tourism receipts recorded in 2009 amid the global economic and financial crisis.
UNWTO Secretary-General Zurab Pololikashvili said: “The latest World Tourism Barometer shows the deep impact this pandemic is having on tourism, a sector upon which millions of people depend for their livelihoods. However, safe and responsible international travel is now possible in many parts of the world, and it is imperative that governments work closely with the private sector to get global tourism moving again. Coordinated action is key.”
All global regions hit hard
Despite the gradual reopening of many destinations since the second half of May, the anticipated improvement in international tourism numbers during the peak summer season in the Northern Hemisphere did not materialize. Europe was the second-hardest hit of all global regions, with a 66% decline in tourist arrivals in the first half of 2020. The Americas (-55%), Africa and the Middle East (both -57%) also suffered. However, Asia and the Pacific, the first region to feel the impact of COVID-19 on tourism, was the hardest hit, with a 72% fall in tourists for the six-month period.
At the sub-regional level, North-East Asia (-83%) and Southern Mediterranean Europe (-72%) suffered the largest declines. All world regions and sub-regions recorded declines of more than 50% in arrivals in January-June 2020. The contraction of international demand is also reflected in double-digit declines in international tourism expenditure among large markets. Major outbound markets such as the United States and China continue to be at a standstill, though some markets such as France and Germany have shown some improvement in June.
Looking ahead, it seems likely that reduced travel demand and consumer confidence will continue to impact results for the rest of the year. In May, UNWTO outlined three possible scenarios, pointing to declines of 58% to 78% in international tourist arrivals in 2020. Current trends through August point to a drop in demand closer to 70% (Scenario 2), especially now as some destinations re-introduce restrictions on travel.
The extension of the scenarios to 2021 point to a change in trend next year, based on the assumptions of a gradual and linear lifting of travel restrictions, the availability of a vaccine or treatment and a return of traveller confidence. Nonetheless, despite this, the return to 2019 levels in terms of tourist arrivals would take between 2 to 4 years.
Harnessing the Power of Culture and Creativity in Tourism Recovery
The shared values and close ties between tourism and culture stakeholders means both sectors can work together to ensure inclusive access to heritage, as countries around the world recover from the pandemic. In recognition of this mutually reinforcing relationship, the World Tourism Organization (UNWTO) and UNESCO have collaborated to produce a set of new guidelines focusing on the responsible restart of cultural tourism.
UNWTO invited the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) to contribute to the UNWTO Inclusive Recovery Guide, Issue 2: Cultural Tourism. This is the second set of guidelines relating to the socio-cultural impacts of COVID-19 issued by UNWTO and will continue to be revised, as the situation evolves.
Make cultural tourism relevant in the recovery
The publication draws on the insights and expertise of the two UN agencies to analyse the impact of the pandemic on their respective sectors. This includes how lost revenues are severely impacting communities, heritage sites, cultural events, spaces and institutions, while also weakening destinations’ competitiveness and market differentiation. The guidelines on cultural tourism also stress the need for support from policymakers to ensure the relevance of culture in the emergency and contingency planning within tourism destinations.
Cooperation for a better future
Alongside the new guidelines, UNWTO is urging the cultural tourism sector to create participatory governance structures, bringing together artists, creators, tourism and culture professionals, the private sector and local communities, for an open dialogue, data exchange and real-time solutions. The document also advocates for better urban–rural connections so as to ensure the benefits of both culture and tourism are enjoyed as widely as possible.
As a result of the pandemic, 90% of countries introduced total or partial closures of their World Heritage sites. In many cases, sites of special significance to humanity were closed to the public for the first time in decades. At the same time, the pandemic highlighted the relevance of both tourism and culture. The sudden fall in tourist arrivals has been felt across the globe, while millions of people have turned to virtual cultural experiences for comfort and inspiration.
The release of the guidelines comes within the context of the International Year of Creative Economy for Sustainable Development 2021, a UN initiative designed to recognize how different manifestations of culture, including cultural tourism, can contribute to advancing the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).
Statistics to Guide Restart of Tourism in the Caribbean
From the need for enhanced political engagement to developing relevant expertise, the World Tourism Organization, jointly with the Caribbean Tourism Organization, have united their Members in the Caribbean to address the key challenges they face in making effective use of statistics to drive the restart of their tourism sectors.
Over the course of two days, a regional virtual workshop analysed the importance of tourism data for supporting the sector in the present and helping tourism to restart in the Caribbean in a timely and sustainable manner. The workshop brought together around 130 participants from 23 States, including the leaders of National Tourism Administrations, National Statistical Offices, Central Banks and Migration authorities. The high-level status of participants ensures that they will in turn spread UNWTO’s technical expertise within their own countries, empowering more tourism professionals with knowledge of how best to analyse and use data to guide decisions.
Through the sessions, the Caribbean tourism community got a better understanding of the fundamentals of tourism statistics. They were also given an overview of UNWTO’s Tourism Satellite Account (TSA) data, as well as guidance on how this can be used to guide decision-making.
Welcoming UNWTO’s technical assistance, Neil Walters, Acting Secretary General of the Caribbean Tourism Organization said: “We recognize the importance of data and statistics in the development of COVID-19 recovery programs and comprehensive sustainable tourism strategies. We thank the UNWTO for supporting our efforts at capacity building in tourism statistics analysis and reporting in the Caribbean.”
The workshop also emphasized the relevance of tourism statistics, both for informing the sector’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic but also, looking ahead, for its role in guiding sustainable development across the Caribbean region. As with every other global region, the crisis has hit the Caribbean hard. According to the latest UNWTO data, Caribbean destinations experienced a 67% fall in international tourist arrivals in 2020 compared to the previous year. Given the reliance of many destinations on the sector, this has placed large numbers of livelihoods and businesses at risk and makes the timely restart of tourism vital.
2020: Worst Year in Tourism History with 1 Billion Fewer International Arrivals
Global tourism suffered its worst year on record in 2020, with international arrivals dropping by 74% according to the latest data from the World Tourism Organization (UNWTO). Destinations worldwide welcomed 1 billion fewer international arrivals in 2020 than in the previous year, due to an unprecedented fall in demand and widespread travel restrictions. This compares with the 4% decline recorded during the 2009 global economic crisis.
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.
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.
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.”
Recovery outlook remains cautious
The latest UNWTO Panel of Experts survey shows a mixed outlook for 2021. Almost half of respondents (45%) envisaged better prospects for 2021 compared to last year, while 25% expect a similar performance and 30% foresee a worsening of results in 2021.
The overall prospects of a rebound in 2021 seem to have worsened. 50% of respondents now expect a rebound to occur only in 2022 as compared to 21% in October 2020. The remaining half of respondents still see a potential rebound in 2021, though below the expectations shown in the October 2020 survey (79% expected recovery in 2021). As and when tourism does restart, the UNWTO Panel of Experts foresee growing demand for open-air and nature-based tourism activities, with domestic tourism and ‘slow travel’ experiences gaining increasing interest.
Looking further ahead, most experts do not to see a return to pre-pandemic levels happening before 2023. In fact, 43% of respondents point to 2023, while 41% expect a return to 2019 levels will only happen in 2024 or later. UNWTO’s extended scenarios for 2021-2024 indicate that it could take two-and-a-half to four years for international tourism to return to 2019 levels.
All world regions affected
Asia and the Pacific (-84%) – 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% decline.
Europe recorded a 70% 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% decrease in international arrivals, following somewhat better results in the last quarter of the year.
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