Following a strong 2023, international tourism is well on track to return to pre-pandemic levels in 2024.
According to the first UNWTO (United Nations World Tourism Organization) World Tourism Barometer of the year, international tourism ended 2023 at 88 per cent of pre-pandemic levels, with an estimated 1.3 billion international arrivals. The unleashing of remaining pent-up demand, increased air connectivity, and a stronger recovery of Asian markets and destinations, are expected to underpin a full recovery by the end of 2024.
Looking ahead to 2024:
As we look ahead to 2024, there is an optimistic expectation for the full recovery of international tourism to pre-pandemic levels, with initial estimates indicating a 2 per cent growth above 2019 levels, said UNWTO. Its central forecast emphasizes the importance of the pace of recovery in Asia and the influence of existing economic and geopolitical risks on this projection.
The positive outlook is reinforced by the UNWTO Tourism Confidence Index survey, where 67 per cent of tourism professionals express confidence in better or much better prospects for 2024 compared to 2023. Notably, only 6 per cent anticipate a decline in tourism performance, while 28 per cent expect similar performance.
Key factors in the anticipated recovery include significant room for growth in Asia, boosted by the reopening of source markets and destinations. China’s tourism, both outbound and inbound, is expected to accelerate in 2024, supported by visa facilitation and improved air capacity.
Furthermore, the Middle East and Africa are set to benefit from visa and travel facilitation measures, including a unified tourist visa in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries and initiatives to facilitate intra-African travel in Kenya and Rwanda.
Europe is anticipated to be a driving force in 2024, with Romania and Bulgaria joining the Schengen area and Paris hosting the Summer Olympics in July and August. Strong travel from the United States, backed by a robust US dollar, will continue to positively impact destinations in the Americas and beyond. Robust source markets in Europe, the Americas, and the Middle East are expected to fuel global tourism flows and spending.
However, economic and geopolitical challenges persist, with factors such as inflation, high interest rates, volatile oil prices, and trade disruptions potentially affecting transport and accommodation costs in 2024. Travelers are likely to seek value for money and opt for closer-to-home destinations. Sustainable practices and adaptability will increasingly influence consumer choices.
Staff shortages remain a critical issue for tourism businesses dealing with high demand. Additionally, uncertainties stemming from conflicts such as the Hamas-Israel conflict and geopolitical tensions, including Russian aggression against Ukraine, continue to impact traveler confidence.
International tourism hit US$1.4 trillion in 2023
The most recent data from the United Nations World Tourism Organization (UNWTO) underscores the economic implications of the ongoing recovery in the tourism sector. Preliminary estimates reveal that international tourism receipts for the year 2023 amounted to USD 1.4 trillion, representing approximately 93 per cent of the earnings recorded by destinations in 2019, which stood at USD 1.5 trillion. Moreover, the total export revenues from tourism, inclusive of passenger transport, are projected to be USD 1.6 trillion in 2023, nearly 95 per cent of the USD 1.7 trillion reported in 2019.
In terms of the economic contribution of tourism, as measured by tourism direct gross domestic product (TDGDP), preliminary estimates indicate a figure of USD 3.3 trillion in 2023, constituting 3 per cent of the global GDP. This points towards a notable recovery in TDGDP from the pre-pandemic levels, propelled by robust performance in both domestic and international tourism.
Several destinations have experienced substantial growth in international tourism receipts during the initial ten to twelve months of 2023, surpassing, in some instances, the growth in arrivals. Concurrently, a number of significant source markets reported strong demand for outbound travel during this period, with many exceeding the levels observed in 2019.
The sustained recovery is further evident in key industry indicators. According to the UNWTO Tourism Recovery Tracker, both international air capacity and passenger demand have rebounded to approximately 90 per cent of pre-pandemic levels as of October 2023 (according to IATA).
Accommodation establishments globally have shown improvement as well, with global occupancy rates reaching 65 per cent in November, slightly exceeding the 62 per cent recorded in November 2022 (based on STR data).
Middle East, Europe and Africa performed strongest in 2023
The latest UNWTO World Tourism Barometer also provides a comprehensive overview of the sector’s performance in 2023, tracking recovery by global region, sub-region and destination.The Middle East led recovery in relative terms as the only region to overcome pre-pandemic levels with arrivals 22 per cent above 2019.
Europe, the world’s most visited region, reached 94 per cent of 2019 levels, supported by intra-regional demand and travel from the United States. Africa recovered 96 per cent of pre-pandemic visitors and Americas reached 90 per cent.
Asia and the Pacific reached 65 per cent of pre-pandemic levels following the reopening of several markets and destinations. However, performance is mixed, with South Asia already recovering 87 per cent of 2019 levels and North-East Asia around 55 per cent.
Available data shows several destinations, including both large, established destinations as well as small and emerging ones, reporting double-digit growth in international arrivals in 2023 when compared to 2019. Four sub-regions exceeded their 2019 arrival levels: Southern Mediterranean Europe, Caribbean, Central America and North Africa.
“The latest UNWTO data underscores tourism’s resilience and rapid recovery, with pre-pandemic numbers expected by the end of 2024. The rebound is already having a significant impact on economies, jobs, growth and opportunities for communities everywhere. These numbers also recall the critical task of progressing sustainability and inclusion in tourism development,” stated UNWTO Secretary-General Zurab Pololikashvili.