World Tourism Organization Shows Return of International Travel after Pandemic

International tourism continues to show clear signs of recovery, according to the latest UNWTO World Tourism Barometer.

International tourist arrivals almost tripled (+172%) from January to July 2022; Reaching 57% of pre-pandemic levels – almost 60% of pre-pandemic levels.

The steady recovery reflects strong pent-up demand for international travel, as well as the easing or lifting of previous travel restrictions (86 countries had no COVID-19-related restrictions as of September 19, 2022).

UNWTO Secretary General Zurab Pololikashvili said: “Tourism continues to recover steadily but some challenges remain, from geopolitical to economic. The sector is bringing hope and opportunity back to people everywhere. Now is also the time to rethink tourism, where it is going and how it impacts people and the planet.”

An estimated 474 million tourists traveled internationally during that period, compared to 175 million in the same months of 2021. An estimated 207 million international arrivals were recorded in June and July 2022 combined, more than double the number for the same two months last year. These months account for 44% of the total arrivals recorded in the first seven months of 2022. Europe has received 309 million of these arrivals, which is 65% of the total.

Europe and Middle East Lead Recovery

Europe and the Middle East showed the fastest recovery from January to July 2022, with arrivals hitting 74% and 76% of 2019 levels, respectively. Europe welcomed nearly three times as many international arrivals as in the first seven months of 2021 (+190%), with results boosted by strong intra-regional demand and travel from the United States. The region saw particularly robust performance in June (-21% vs. 2019) and July (-16%), reflecting a busy summer period. Arrivals rose to about 85% of 2019 levels in July. The lifting of travel restrictions in a large number of destinations also contributed to these results (44 countries in Europe had no COVID-19-related restrictions as of September 19, 2022) .

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In the Middle East, international arrivals increased almost fourfold (+287%) from January to July 2022 compared to the previous year. Arrivals in July exceeded pre-pandemic levels (+3%), bolstered by Saudi Arabia’s exceptional results (+121%) after the Hajj pilgrimage.

The Americas (+103%) and Africa (+171%) also experienced strong growth in the January-July 2022 period compared to 2021, reaching 65% and 60% of 2019 levels, respectively. Asia and the Pacific (+165%) More than doubled arrivals in the first seven months of 2022, although remaining 86% below 2019 levels as some borders remained closed to non-essential travel.

Sub-Regions and Destinations

Several subregions met 70% to 85% of their pre-pandemic arrivals in January-July 2022. Southern Mediterranean Europe (-15% vs. 2019), the Caribbean (-18%) and Central America (-20%) showed the fastest recovery to 2019 levels. Western Europe (-26%) and Northern Europe (-27%) also scored strong results. In July, arrivals in the Caribbean (-5%), Southern and Mediterranean Europe (-6%) and Central America (-8%) were close to pre-pandemic levels.

Among destinations reporting international arrivals data in the first five to seven months of 2022 were those that exceeded pre-pandemic levels: US Virgin Islands (+32% vs. 2019), Albania (+19%), St. Maarten (+15%), Ethiopia and Honduras (both +13%), Andorra (+10%), Puerto Rico (+7%), United Arab Emirates and Dominican Republic (both +3%), San Marino and El Salvador (both +1%) and Curaçao (0%).

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Destinations reporting international tourism revenue data for the first five to seven months of 2022 are Serbia (+73%), Sudan (+64%), Romania (+43%), Albania (+32 %), North Macedonia (+24%), Pakistan (+18%), Türkiye, Bangladesh and Latvia (all +12%), Mexico and Portugal (both +8%), Kenya (+5%) and Colombia (+2nd %) exceeded all pre-pandemic levels in January-July 2022.

Tourism spending is increasing, but the challenges are growing

The ongoing recovery is also reflected in spending on foreign tourism from important source markets. Spending from France increased by -12% from January to July 2022 compared to 2019, while spending from Germany increased by -14%. International tourism spending was -23% in Italy and -26% in the United States.

International passenger air travel also had a robust performance, with a 234% increase in January-July 2022 (45% below 2019 levels) and a recovery of about 70% of pre-pandemic traffic levels in July, according to IATA.

Stronger than expected demand has also created important operational and human resources challenges in tourism businesses and infrastructure, especially airports. In addition, the economic situation, aggravated by the Russian Federation’s aggression against Ukraine, poses a major downside risk. The combination of rising interest rates in all major economies, rising energy and food prices and the growing prospects for a global recession, as indicated by the World Bank, are major threats to international tourism recovery through 2022 and 2023. The potential slowdown can be seen in the latest UNWTO Confidence Index, which reflects a more cautious outlook, as well as booking trends showing signs of slowing growth.

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Tourism experts cautiously confident

On a scale of 0 to 200, the UNWTO Panel of Tourism Experts gave the May-August 2022 period a score of 125, in line with the optimistic expectations expressed by the panel in the May survey for the same 4-month period ( 124).

The outlook for the rest of the year is cautiously optimistic. Although above-average performance is expected, tourism experts gave the September-December 2022 period a score of 111, down from the previous four months’ score of 125, indicating a downgrade in confidence levels. Almost half of the experts (47%) see a positive outlook for the September-December 2022 period, while 24% expect no particular changes and 28% think it could be worse. Experts also appear optimistic for 2023 as 65% see tourism performing better than 2022.

However, the uncertain economic environment appears to have reversed prospects for a near-term return to pre-pandemic levels. About 61% of experts now see a possible return in international arrivals to 2019 levels in 2024 or later, while those pointing to a return to pre-pandemic levels in 2023 compared to the May survey (48% ) have decreased (27%). According to experts, the economic environment remains the main factor weighing on the recovery of international tourism. Rising inflation and oil prices are driving up transport and accommodation costs, putting pressure on consumers’ purchasing power and savings.

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