MADRID — Global tourism suffered its worst year on record in 2020, with international arrivals dropping by 74 per cent, according to the latest data from the World Tourism Organization (UNWTO).

Destinations worldwide welcomed one-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 four-per-cent 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 US$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 re-introducing 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 of travel restrictions and slowly normalize travel during the year ahead.

“While much [progress] has been made in making safe international travel a possibility, we are aware that the crisis is far from over,” says Zurab Pololikashvili, secretary-general, UNWTO. “The harmonization, co-ordination 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.”

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

The overall prospects of a re-bound in 2021 seem to have worsened. Fifty per cent of respondents now expect a rebound to occur only in 2022, as compared to 21 per cent 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 per cent expected recovery in 2021). And, when tourism does re-start, 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.


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