Impact assessment of the COVID-19 outbreak on international tourism

Impact assessment of the COVID-19 outbreak on international tourism

Tourism Grows 4% in 2021 but Remains Far Below Pre Pandemic Levels

  • International tourism experienced a 4% increase in 2021, 15 million more international tourist arrivals (overnight visitors) compared to 2020 (415 million versus 400 million). However, international arrivals were still 72% below the pre-pandemic year of 2019, according to preliminary estimates. This follows on from 2020, the worst year on record for tourism, when international arrivals decreased by 73%.
  • The uplift in demand was driven by increased traveler confidence amid rapid progress on vaccinations and the easing of entry restrictions in many destinations. 
  • International tourism rebounded moderately during the second half of 2021, with international arrivals down 62% in both the third and fourth quarters compared to pre-pandemic levels. According to limited data, international arrivals in December were 65% below 2019 levels. The full impact of the Omicron variant and surge in COVID-19 cases is yet to be seen.
  • The pace of recovery remains slow and uneven across world regions due to varying degrees of mobility restrictions, vaccination rates and traveler confidence. 
  • Europe and the Americas recorded the strongest results in 2021 compared to 2020 (+19% and +17% respectively), but still both 63% below pre-pandemic levels.
  • By subregion, the Caribbean saw the best performance (+63% above 2020, though 37% below 2019), with some destinations coming close to, or exceeding pre-pandemic levels. Southern Mediterranean Europe (+57%) and Central America (+54%) also enjoyed a significant rebound but remain 54% and 56% down on 2019 levels respectively. North America (+17%) and Central Eastern Europe (+18%) also climbed above 2020 levels. 
  • Meanwhile, Africa saw a 12% increase in arrivals in 2021 compared to 2020, though this is still 74% below 2019. In the Middle East arrivals declined 24% compared to 2020 and 79% over 2019. In Asia and the Pacific arrivals were still 65% below 2020 levels and 94% when compared to pre-pandemic values as many destinations remained closed to non-essential travel.

International Tourist Arrivals by Region

Provisional Data (Data as of January 2022)

International Tourist Arrivals by Region

Economic impact

International Tourist Arrivals and Tourism Receipts 200 - 2021
  • The economic contribution of tourism in 2021 (measured in tourism direct gross domestic product) is estimated at US$1.9 trillion, above the US$1.6 trillion in 2020, but still well below the pre-pandemic value of US$ 3.5 trillion. Export revenues from international tourism could exceed US$700 billion in 2021, a small improvement over 2020 due to higher spending per trip, but less than half the US$1.7 trillion recorded in 2019.
  • Average receipts per arrival are estimated to reach US$1,500 in 2021, up from US$1,300 in 2020. This is due to large pent-up savings and longer lengths of stay, as well as higher transport and accommodation prices. France and Belgium reported comparatively smaller declines in tourism expenditure with -37% and -28%, respectively over 2019. Saudi Arabia (-27%) and Qatar (-2%) also posted somewhat better results in 2021.

2021*: Another Challenging Year

International tourist arrivals

-72% vs 2019
-1 billion

+4% vs 2020
+15 million

Export revenues from international tourism

-US$ 0.9 to -US$ 1.0 trillion

Direct Tourism GDP

-US$ 1.6 trillion

Unprecedented impact from COVID-19





International tourist arrivals
(overnight visitors)

1.5 billion

400 million

415 million

Export revenues from international tourism
(international tourism receipts + passenger transport)

USD 1.7 trillion

USD 638 billion

USD 700-800 bn

Tourism Direct Gross Domestic Product (TDGDP)

USD 3.5 trillion

USD 1.6 trillion

USD 1.9 trillion

Source: UNWTO, * Pre-pandemic year, ** Preliminary results

UNWTO Panel of Experts, Highlights Survey January 2022

  • According to the latest UNWTO Panel of Experts, most tourism professionals (61%) see better prospects for 2022. While 58% expect a rebound in 2022, mostly during the third quarter, an42% vs point to a potential rebound only in 2023. A majority of experts (64%) now expect international arrivals to return to 2019 levels only in 2024 or later, up from 45% in the September survey.
  • The UNWTO Confidence Index shows a slight decline in January-April 2022. A rapid and more widespread vaccination roll-out, followed by a major lifting of travel restrictions, and more coordination and clearer information on travel protocols, are the main factors identified by experts for the effective recovery of international tourism.

Panel Evaluation and Prospects

What are the main factors which could contribute to an effective recovery of international tourism?

What are the main factors which could contribute to an effective recovery of international tourism?

Is domestic tourism driving the recovery in your destination?

When do you expect international tourism to return to pre-pandemic 2019 levels in your country?

When do you expect international tourism to return to pre-pandemic 2019 levels in your country?

Is domestic tourism driving the recovery in your destination?

UNWTO Outlook 2022: Prospects for International Tourism

  • UNWTO scenarios indicate that international tourist arrivals could grow by 30% to 78% in 2022 as compared to 2021. However, this is still 50% to 63% below pre-pandemic levels.UNWTO outlook 2022: prospects for international
  • 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. At the same time, the vaccination roll-out remains uneven and many destinations still have their borders completely closed, mostly in Asia and the Pacific. A challenging economic environment could put additional pressure on the effective recovery of international tourism, with the surge in oil prices, increase in inflation, potential rise in interest rates, high debt volumes and the continued disruption in supply chains. However, the ongoing tourism recovery in many markets, mostly in Europe and the Americas, coupled with the widespread vaccination rollout and a major coordinated lifting of travel restrictions, could help to restore consumer confidence and accelerate the recovery of international tourism in 2022.  
  • While international tourism bounces back, domestic tourism continues to drive recovery of the sector in an increasing number of destinations, particularly those with large domestic markets. According to experts, domestic tourism and travel close to home, as well as open-air activities, nature-based products and rural tourism are among the major travel trends that will continue shaping tourism in 2022.

Changes in Consumer Trends

Short-lived trends or here to stay?


Domestic tourism has shown positive signs in many markets since people
tend to travel closer. Travelers go for ‘staycations’ or vacations close to home.

More responsible

Sustainability, authenticity and localhood: travelers believe in the importance of creating a positive impact on local communities, increasingly searching for authenticity.

Get away

Nature, Rural Tourism and Road Trips have emerged as popular travel choices due to travel limitations and the quest for open-air experiences.

Longer stays & higher spending

2021 has seen a significant increase in spending per trip and longer stays

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