As 2021 drew to a close with severe limitations to travel still in place, the World Tourism Organization (UNWTO) reported that international tourist arrivals increased by just 4% last year, remaining 72% below 2019 levels.
That equates to more than 1 billion fewer international arrivals compared to pre-pandemic levels, keeping the industry at levels last seen in the late 1980s.
Prior to the coronavirus outbreak, the global tourism sector had seen almost uninterrupted growth for decades.
Since 1980, the number of international arrivals skyrocketed from 277 million to nearly 1.5 billion in 2019.
As the chart shows, the two largest crises of the past decades, the SARS epidemic of 2003 and the global financial crisis of 2009, were minor bumps in the road compared to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Looking ahead, most experts no longer expect a full recovery until until 2024 or later.
While the UNWTO Panel of Experts is confident to see an uptick in travel activity this year, just 4% of the surveyed experts expect a full recovery in 2022.
Roughly one third of respondents believe that international arrivals will return to pre-pandemic levels in 2023, while 63% think it will take even longer than that.
UNWTO scenarios predict that international tourist arrivals could grow between 30 and 78% in 2022 compared to 2021.
While that sounds like a significant improvement, it would still be more than 50% below pre-pandemic levels.