The United Nations World Tourism Organisation (UNWTO) called 2020 the “worst year on record” in the history of global tourism.
More than halfway through 2021, it seems the crisis has continued into a second year.
The latest UNWTO data shows that between January and May this year, world destinations recorded 147 million fewer international arrivals (overnight visitors) compared to the same period of 2020, or 460 million less than pre-pandemic year of 2019.
UNWTO warned that the emergence of Covid-19 variants and the continued imposition of restrictions will weigh down the recovery of international travel this year.
“Rising concerns over the Delta variant of the virus have led several countries to reimpose restrictive measures. In addition, the volatility and lack of clear information on entry requirements could continue to weigh on the resumption of international travel,” UNWTO said in a statement.
Ongoing vaccination programmes around the world, however, could provide a silver lining for the seriously battered tourism sector.
In fact, worldwide vaccination is crucial in successfully kickstarting tourism again, said UNWTO secretary-general Zurab Pololikashvili.
“Accelerating the pace of vaccination worldwide, working on effective coordination and communication on ever changing travel restrictions while advancing digital tools to facilitate mobility will be critical to rebuild trust in travel and restart tourism,” he explained.
However, the resumption of international tourism will remain “very fragile and delicate”, said UNWTO.
By regions, Asia Pacific suffered the largest decline with a 95% drop in international arrivals in the first five months of 2021 compared to the same period in 2019.
A majority of tourism experts (56%) polled by UNWTO said international tourism in Asia Pacific can only return to pre-pandemic levels beginning 2024 or later.
While international travel will be largely inhibited, UNWTO is optimistic that domestic travel will drive recovery in many destinations.
The importance of the domestic tourism market was shared by Agoda vice president (corporate development) Tim Hughes.
“When consumers come back, they come back for domestic first: the “driveable” markets around them, two to three hours outside of their capital city.
“But then very quickly, they are prepared to get back on air planes. We saw that in Thailand, Vietnam and to a lesser extent, Malaysia,” he said during a webinar recently.
Other panellists at the Is Asean Tourism Dead? webinar, held last month by Maybank Kim Eng, also agreed that there was pent-up demand for domestic destinations.
Philippines Tourism Department undersecretary (tourism development) Benito C. Bengzon Jr noted that even before the onset of Covid-19, the country enjoyed a healthy domestic tourism sector.
Moving forward, the panellists said vaccination rates and health protocols are seen as key to full reopening of tourism in the region.
The Philippines, Thailand, Indonesia and Vietnam are expected to have 70% of their populations vaccinated by the end of 2021.