What are expert prospects for tourism recovery?
Though international tourism has revealed signs of a rebound as some destinations eased travel restrictions over the past couple of months, the lack of international coordination and slow vaccination rates in several countries and regions suggest it may need a longer time to bounce back.
On the one hand, according to the latest edition of the UNWTO World Tourism Barometer, an estimated 54 million tourists crossed international borders in July 2021, down 67% from the same month in 2019, but the strongest results since April 2020. This compares to an estimated 34 million international arrivals recorded in July 2020, though well below the 164 million figure recorded in 2019. On the other hand, another research conducted by Oxford Economics on behalf of the World Travel and Tourism Council (WTTC) reveals that countries’ GDP is expected to increase only by less than one-third, as tourism is recovering even slower than expected. The research was based on the current vaccination rates globally, consumer confidence, and less stringent entry and travel restrictions in the world. However, prospects for September-December 2021 remain mixed, according to the latest UNWTO Panel of Experts survey, with 53% of respondents believing the period will be worse than expected. Only 31% of experts expect the point to better results towards the end of the year. The survey also shows that most tourism professionals continue to expect a rebound driven by unleashed pent-up demand for international travel in 2022, mostly during the second and third quarters. Almost half of all experts (45%) continue to see international tourism returning to 2019 levels in 2024 or later, while 43% point to a recovery in 2023. By regions, the largest share of experts pointing to a return to 2019 levels in 2024 or later are in Asia and the Pacific (58%). In Europe, half of the respondents indicate this could happen in 2023. West Asia is the most optimistic, with a full recovery expected by 2022. As mentioned by the UNWTO Barometer, most destinations reporting data for June and July 2021 saw a moderate rebound in international arrivals compared to 2020. Nevertheless, 2021 continues to be a challenging year for global tourism, with international arrivals down 80% in January-July compared to 2019. Asia and the Pacific continued to suffer the weakest results in the period January to July, with a 95% drop in international arrivals compared to 2019. “West Asia (-82%) recorded the second-largest decline, followed by Europe and Africa (both -77%). The Americas (-68%) saw a comparatively smaller decrease, with the Caribbean showing the best performance among world subregions. Meanwhile, some small islands in the Caribbean, Africa, and Asia and the Pacific, together with a few small European destinations recorded the best performance in June and July, with arrivals close to, or sometimes exceeding pre-pandemic levels.” Iran preparing for tourism rebound Iran considers reopening borders to foreign vacationers as its new tourism minister has said the government will soon scrap visa restrictions. Cultural Heritage, Tourism and Handicrafts Minister Ezzatollah Zarghami made the announcement last month following his conversations with President Seyyed Ebrahim Raisi, however, the minister did not specify the date upon which those regulations would be scrapped. According to some sources, fully vaccinated travelers would be embraced first under the updated regulations. The average of international travels to and from the Islamic Republic fell by 80 percent during the past Iranian calendar year 1399 (ended on March 20, 2021) from a year earlier. “During this period, 4,343,163 passengers entered the country, which included 3,030,464 Iranian passengers and 512,699 international travelers,” according to Arezou Ghaniun, an official with the Islamic Republic of Iran’s Customs Administration. “From the beginning of 1399 to the end of it, we saw a significant reduction in passenger traffic to the country or vice versa in land, sea, rail and air borders, which were caused by various coronavirus restrictions.” Months of steep recession has taken its toll. Many travel insiders, hoteliers, and tour operators have faced big dilemmas such as bankruptcy, unemployment, debts, and the prospects of not being competitive on the international level. Panels of travel experts have mapped out new marketing strategies hoping Iran’s tourism would get back on its feet once again. For instance, the Head of the Iranian Tour Operators Association has said the international tourist flow to Iran will return to normal until 2022. Iran is potentially a booming destination for travelers seeking cultural attractions, breathtaking sceneries, and numerous UNESCO-registered sites. Under the 2025 Tourism Vision Plan, Iran aims to increase the number of tourist arrivals from 4.8 million in 2014 to 20 million in 2025. Domestic tourism as a propeller in COVID era The annual UNWTO Executive Training Programme, which was held in the Maldives from October 5 to 8, sharpened the focus on harnessing the power of domestic tourism to drive recovery and growth in destinations across Asia and the Pacific. Now in its 15th year, the event brought together representatives of 25 countries, with six (Iran, Sri Lanka, Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Mongolia, and Nepal) joining hosts in the Maldives to attend the training sessions in person. Reflecting the restart of domestic tourism ahead of international tourism, both across Asia and the Pacific and globally, the event focused on enabling destinations of all sizes to capitalize on this trend. Opening the event, UNWTO Secretary-General Zurab Pololikashvili stressed that, as tourism restarts in many parts of the world, “the sector needs leaders who can recognize ideas that will make a difference, who will innovate and back entrepreneurs and start-ups”. Confidence in travel rising sluggishly Such an enhancement was underpinned by the reopening of many destinations to international travel, mostly in Europe and the Americas. The relaxation of travel restrictions for vaccinated travelers, coupled with the progress made in the roll-out of COVID-19 vaccines, contributed to lifting consumer confidence and gradually restoring safe mobility in Europe and other parts of the world. In contrast, most destinations in Asia remain closed to non-essential travel. According to UNWTO Secretary-General Zurab Pololikashvili, there is a strong demand for international tourism, and many destinations have started welcoming visitors back safely and responsibly. “However, the true restart of tourism and the benefits it brings remains on hold as inconsistent rules and regulations and uneven vaccination rates continue to affect confidence in travel,” Pololikashvili says.