07/12/2021

Going nowhere

If the tourism industry were represented by a traveller, he would be sitting in an airport lounge staring at a departure board showing nothing but “Delayed” and “Cancelled”. At the beginning of this year, as vaccination programmes against covid-19 started to be rolled out across rich economies, a world once more full of tourists and business travellers became a tantalising prospect. Then came the Delta variant, which forced countries to tighten their borders again. Today, even as Delta continues to wreak havoc in Europe and America, the discovery of Omicron has prompted yet more travel bans, dampening the mood further.

The gloom was confirmed in the latest World Tourism Barometer by the World Tourism Organisation (UNWTO), a UN agency, released on November 28th, before the full effects of Omicron could be gauged. Two comparisons are needed. Measuring the size of the industry against 2019 levels, the last time people could travel freely, shows how far it is away from normality. Comparing it with 2020, when tourism tanked, gives a sense of the speed of any recovery. Neither metric gives much comfort. The UNWTO expects international tourist arrivals in 2021 to be 70-75% below where they were in 2019. That would be no different from last year. Receipts from tourism, meanwhile, are forecast to reach $700bn-800bn, a small improvement from 2020 but puny compared with the US$1.7trn recorded in 2019.

Data for the first three quarters of the year show that Asia is being particularly clobbered. International arrivals there were just 5% of their 2019 levels, down from 16% in 2020. Asian countries have generally been slower to loosen covid restrictions. China, the world’s second-biggest tourism market, has kept its doors locked as it pursues a zero-covid policy. The picture is bleak in Europe too. Although travel on the continent rebounded a bit during the July-September quarter compared with the same period last year, arrivals for the year-to-date are unchanged. Only in North America, where arrivals snuck above 2020 levels during the first nine months of the year, is there much cause for cheer.

The coming year will probably be better, as restrictions will, with luck, continue to be eased (aided by new technology) and huge pent-up demand from the past two years is released. But China is unlikely to relax its rules in 2022, for fear of unleashing a devastating coronavirus outbreak in the year when it hosts the winter Olympics and when Xi Jinping may seek another term as its leader. Much also depends on the revival of business trips, which in a typical year account for around a fifth of global tourism spending, according to the World Travel and Tourism Council, an industry body. Casting uncertainty over everything are variants like Omicron, and whatever follows it. So it may be 2024 before tourism returns to anything like pre-pandemic levels. ■

This article is from our Graphic detail section.