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Global tourism inched back in 2021, with Europe and the Americas showing the strongest recovery, but is still a fraction of pre-pandemic levels, said the World Tourism Organisation on Tuesday (UNWTO).

After 2020, the worst year on record for tourism, there were faint hopes the industry would regain footing in 2021. But all indicators show it has barely improved.

Global tourism arrivals have tumbled to less than a quarter of what they were in 2019, and industry professionals are not expecting a full recovery before 2024, according to a report by the UN agency.

Rising vaccination rates and the easing of travel rules did allow a small rebound in the second half of 2021, though the spread of the Omicron variant close to Christmas triggered another dip in both travel bookings and industry optimism.

Tourists take photos in front of blossoms on Himalayan Cherry Trees in Chiangmai, Thailand, 14 January 2022.

Tourists take photos in front of blossoms on Himalayan Cherry Trees in Chiangmai, Thailand, 14 January. Photograph: Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

“The pace of recovery remains slow and uneven across world regions due to varying degrees of mobility restrictions, vaccination rates and traveller confidence,” the report said.

Southern Mediterranean Europe, Central America and the Caribbean reported the biggest increases in tourist arrivals compared with 2020, but were still respectively 54%, 56% and 37% below the 2019 numbers. Tourism in the Asia Pacific has suffered the most, with visitor numbers down by 94% compared with pre-pandemic levels.

Global tourism’s direct gross product rose 19% in 2021 from 2020 to $1.9tn, the report said, as each tourist spent more and stayed longer than in 2020. But the tourism industry’s revenue still barely surpassed half its 2019 levels.

About 64% of tourism professionals polled by the UNWTO in December do not expect a full recovery before 2024 or later – up from the 45% polled in September, when perspectives for travel revival had not yet been marred by Omicron.

“The recent rise in Covid-19 cases and the Omicron variant are set to disrupt the recovery and affect confidence through early 2022 as some countries reintroduce travel bans and restrictions for certain markets,” the report said.

Will tourism survive the pandemic? And what kind of world will there be without it? A terrific long-read by Christopher de Bellaigue digs into the consequences for our planet and societies.


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