After a stronger than expected recovery in 2022, international tourist arrivals are likely to return to pre-pandemic levels in Europe and the Middle East this year, according to forecasts in the latest World Tourism Barometer published by the UNWTO.
The UNWTO says that “tourists, in a difficult economic environment, are increasingly tending to adjust their budgets and travel closer to home”.
According to UNWTO forecasts for 2023, international tourist arrivals could be between 80% and 95% of pre-pandemic levels this year, depending on the extent of the economic slowdown, how travel in Asia and the Pacific recovers and how the Russian offensive in Ukraine evolves, among other factors.
All regions recover
According to new UNWTO data, more than 900 million tourists travelled internationally in 2022, twice as many as in 2021, although that figure is still 63% of pre-pandemic levels. All regions of the world recorded notable increases in international tourist numbers. The Middle East enjoyed the largest relative increase, with arrivals rising to 83% of pre-pandemic figures. Europe reached almost 80% of pre-pandemic levels, with 585 million arrivals in 2022. Africa and the Americas recovered around 65% of pre-pandemic visitors, while the Asia-Pacific region recovered only 23%, as they maintained stricter pandemic measures that have only in recent months started to be lifted. The first UNWTO World Tourism Barometer 2023 also analyses performance by region and points to the best performing countries in 2022, including several destinations that have already recovered to 2019 levels.
UNWTO Secretary-General Zurab Pololikashvili said of this data that “a new year brings new reasons for optimism for world tourism. UNWTO foresees a good year for the sector, even if we are facing a number of challenges, such as the economic situation and continued geopolitical uncertainty. A number of economic factors may influence the way people travel in 2023, and UNWTO expects demand for domestic and regional travel to remain strong and help drive the sector’s broader recovery”.
Chinese tourists set to make a comeback
UNWTO expects the recovery to continue through 2023 although the sector faces economic, health and geopolitical challenges. The recent lifting of COVID-19 travel restrictions in China, the world’s largest outbound market in 2019, is an important step for the recovery of the tourism sector in Asia-Pacific and globally. In the short term, the resumption of travel from China could benefit Asian destinations in particular. However, the situation will change depending on travel availability and costs, visa regulations and COVID-19 restrictions in the destinations.
By mid-January, a total of 32 countries had imposed specific travel restrictions on travellers from China, especially in Asia and Europe.
At the same time, strong demand from the United States, supported by the strong dollar, will continue to benefit destinations in this and other regions. Europe will continue to sustain strong flows of travellers from the United States, partly due to the weakness of the euro against the dollar.
The increase in international tourism receipts recorded in most destinations has been remarkable, outpacing in several cases the increase in arrivals. This has been helped by an increase in average expenditure per trip due to longer periods of stay, the willingness of travellers to spend more at their destinations and higher travel costs due to inflation. However, the economic situation could mean that tourists adopt a more cautious attitude in 2023, with lower spending, shorter trips and trips to closer locations.
In addition, the continuing uncertainty caused by Russian aggression in Ukraine and other rising geopolitical tensions, as well as health challenges related to IDOC-19 also represent downside risks and could weigh on tourism recovery in the coming months.
The latest UNWTO confidence index shows cautious optimism for January-April, higher than for the same period in 2022. The optimism is supported by the opening in Asia and strong spending figures in 2022 in both traditional and emerging source markets, with strong performances in France, Germany and Italy, as well as in Qatar, India and Saudi Arabia.