The United Nations tourism body said on Monday that the coronavirus pandemic will cost the global tourism sector $2.0 trillion in lost revenue in 2021, calling the sector’s recovery “fragile” and “slow”.
The Madrid-based World Tourism Organization’s forecast comes as Europe grapples with a surge in infections and as a new heavily mutated COVID-19 variant, called Omicron, has spread around the world.
International tourist arrivals this year will be 70-75% lower than the 1.5 billion arrivals recorded in 2019, which was a similar decline in 2020, according to the body, before the pandemic hit.
According to the UNWTO, the global tourism sector lost $2.0 trillion (1.78 trillion euros) in revenue last year due to the pandemic, making it one of the sectors hardest hit by the health crisis.
While the UN body charged with boosting tourism does not have an estimate of how the sector will perform next year, its medium-term outlook is not encouraging.
“Despite recent improvements, uneven vaccination rates around the world and newer COVID-19 strains” such as DeltaVersion and Omicron “may affect an already slow and fragile recovery,” it said in a statement.
UNWTO chief Zurab Pololikashvili told AFP that the introduction of new virus restrictions and lockdowns in many countries in recent weeks shows that “this is a very unpredictable situation.”
“This is a historic crisis in the tourism industry, but again tourism has the power to recover quite rapidly,” he added on Tuesday ahead of the start of the World Trade Organization’s annual general meeting in Madrid.
“I really hope that 2022 will be much better than 2021.”
While international tourism has been hit by disease outbreaks in the past, the coronavirus has been unprecedented in its geographic spread.
The UNWTO said that in addition to virus-related travel restrictions, the region is also grappling with economic stress caused by the pandemic, rising oil prices and supply chain disruptions.
Pololikashvili urged nations to harmonize their virus protocols and restrictions because tourists are “confused and they don’t know how to travel.”
International tourist arrivals “rebound” during the summer season in the Northern Hemisphere, due to increased travel confidence, rapid vaccination and the easing of entry restrictions in many countries, the UNWTO said.
“Despite improvement in the third quarter, the pace of recovery remains uneven around the world due to varying degrees of mobility restrictions, vaccination rates and travellers’ confidence,” it added.
Arrivals in the Caribbean and some islands in South Asia, as well as some destinations in southern Europe, rose near or sometimes higher than pre-pandemic levels in the third quarter.
However, other countries, especially in Asia and the Pacific, saw hardly any tourists, with arrivals down 95% compared to 2019, as many destinations remained closed for non-essential travel.
According to the UNWTO, a total of 46 destinations – 21% of all destinations around the world – currently have their borders completely closed to tourists.
Another 55 have their borders partially closed to foreign visitors, while just four countries have lifted all restrictions related to the virus – Colombia, Costa Rica, the Dominican Republic and Mexico.
The focus will be on the future of the travel sector at the World Trade Organization’s annual general meeting, which will last until Friday.
The event – which brings together representatives of 159 member states of the UN body – was originally scheduled to be held in Marrakesh.
But at the end of October Morocco decided not to host the event due to a rise in COVID-19 cases in several countries.
Before the pandemic, the tourism sector accounted for about 10% of the world’s GDP and jobs.