While few industries have been spared by the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, even fewer have been hit as hard as the tourism sector. As 2020 drew to a close with severe limitations to travel still in place, the World Tourism Organization (UNWTO) reports that international tourist arrivals declined by 74 percent in 2020 compared to the previous year. That equates to a decline of around 1 billion international arrivals, bringing the industry back to 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 our 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 don't expect a full recovery in 2021, which started off with many countries still battling the second wave of the pandemic. According to the UNWTO's estimates, it will take the industry between 2.5 and 4 years to return to pre-pandemic levels of international tourist arrivals.