International tourism is on track to return to pre-pandemic levels in 2024, according to the United Nations World Tourism Organization's World Tourism Barometer.
International tourism ended 2023 at 88 per cent of pre-pandemic levels, with an estimated 1.3 billion international arrivals, the agency says.
The remaining pent-up demand, increased air connectivity, and a stronger recovery of Asian markets and destinations, are expected to underpin a full recovery by the end of 2024.
Middle East, Europe & Africa performed strongest in 2023
The UNWTO World Tourism Barometer provided an overview of the sector's performance in 2023, tracking recovery by global region, sub-region and destination.
Key takeaways include:
The Middle East led recovery in relative terms as the only region to overcome pre-pandemic levels with arrivals 22 per cent above 2019.
Europe, the world's most visited region, reached 94 per cent of 2019 levels, supported by intra-regional demand and travel from the United States.
Africa recovered 96 per cent of pre-pandemic visitors and Americas reached 90 per cent.
Asia and the Pacific reached 65 per cent of pre-pandemic levels following the reopening of several markets and destinations. However, performance is mixed, with South Asia already recovering 87 per cent of 2019 levels and North-East Asia around 55 per cent.
International Tourist Arrivals (% change over 2019)
Several destinations reported double-digit growth in international arrivals in 2023 when compared to 2019.
Four sub-regions exceeded their 2019 arrival levels: Southern Mediterranean Europe, Caribbean, Central America and North Africa.
"The latest UNWTO data underscores tourism's resilience and rapid recovery, with pre-pandemic numbers expected by the end of 2024. The rebound is already having a significant impact on economies, jobs, growth and opportunities for communities everywhere. These numbers also recall the critical task of progressing sustainability and inclusion in tourism development,” said UNWTO Secretary-General Zurab Pololikashvili.
International tourism hit US$1.4 trillion in 2023
The latest UNWTO data also highlights the economic impact of recovery.
International tourism receipts reached USD 1.4 trillion in 2023 according to preliminary estimates, about 93 per cent of the USD 1.5 trillion earned by destinations in 2019.
Total export revenues from tourism (including passenger transport) are estimated at USD 1.6 trillion in 2023, almost 95 per cent of the USD 1.7 trillion recorded in 2019.
According to the UNWTO Tourism Recovery Tracker, both international air capacity and passenger demand recovered about 90 per cent of pre-pandemic levels through October 2023 (IATA).
On international tourism, initial estimates point to two per cent growth above 2019 levels.
This forecast by UNWTO remains subject to the pace of recovery in Asia and to the evolution of existing economic and geopolitical downside risks.
The positive outlook is reflected in the latest UNWTO Tourism Confidence Index survey, with 67 per cent of tourism professionals indicating better or much better prospects for 2024 compared to 2023.
Some 28 per cent expect similar performance, while only six per cent expect tourism performance in 2024 to be worse than last year.
There is still significant room for recovery across Asia, the UNWTO says.
Chinese outbound and inbound tourism is expected to accelerate in 2024, due to visa facilitation and improved air capacity.
China is applying visa-free travel for citizens of France, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Spain and Malaysia for a year to Nov. 30, 2024.
Europe is expected to drive results again in 2024. In March, Romania and Bulgaria will join the Schengen area of free movement, and Paris will host the Summer Olympics in July and August.
Strong travel from the United States, backed by a strong US dollar, will continue to benefit destinations in the Americas and beyond, the UNWTO says.
As in 2023, robust source markets in Europe, the Americas and the Middle East, will continue to fuel tourism flows and spending around the world.
Economic and geopolitical headwinds, meanwhile, continue to pose significant challenges to the sustained recovery of international tourism and confidence levels.
Persisting inflation, high interest rates, volatile oil prices and disruptions to trade can continue to impact transport and accommodations costs in 2024, the UNWTO says.
Against this backdrop, tourists are expected to increasingly seek value for money and travel closer to home, the agency says.
Sustainable practices and adaptability will also play an increasing role in consumer choice.
Staff shortages remain a critical issue, as tourism businesses face a shortfall in labor to cope with high demand.
The evolution of the Hamas-Israel conflict may also disrupt travel in the Middle East and impact traveler confidence.
Uncertainty derived from the Russian aggression against Ukraine as well as other mounting geopolitical tensions, continue to weigh on confidence.