While few industries have been spared by the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic over the past two years, even fewer have been hit as hard as the tourism sector. After "the worst year in tourism history", international tourist arrivals increased by just 5 percent in 2021, as travel restrictions remained in place for protracted periods in many parts of the world. International tourist arrivals once again fell more than one billion short of 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 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.
Almost six months into 2022, a sense of optimism has returned to the tourism sector, as travel demand finally shows signs of a significant uptick. According to the UNWTO's latest World Tourism Barometer, international tourism increased by 182 percent in the three months of 2022 compared to the previous year. While that's still 60 percent below 2019 levels, the uptick in international arrivals gathered pace in March, pointing towards a strong second quarter leading into the summer holiday season.
As the following chart shows, the UNWTO now expects international tourist arrivals to reach 55 to 70 percent of 2019 levels this year, which is equivalent to a 90 to 140 percent improvement over 2021. While confidence is slowly building in the industry, there are some big ifs to consider. Not only could Covid make a comeback in the fall or whenever a more lethal variant emerges, but the war in Ukraine, inflation and global economic conditions could also stifle tourism's return.