While the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic has bypassed few industries, even fewer have been as hard hit as the tourism sector. The World Tourism Organization (UNWTO) reports that, as 2020 drew to a close and severe travel restrictions were still in place, international tourist arrivals were down 74 percent in 2020 from the previous year. This corresponds to a decline of about 1 billion international arrivals, returning the industry to levels last seen in the late 1980s.
Prior to the coronavirus outbreak, the global tourism sector had shown almost uninterrupted growth for decades. Since 1980, international arrivals have soared from 277 million to nearly 1.5 billion in 2019. As our chart shows, the two major crises of recent decades, the SARS epidemic of 2003 and the global financial crisis of 2009, were minor blows in the road compared to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Looking ahead, most experts don’t expect a full recovery in 2021 and 2022, which began with many countries still struggling with the second wave of the pandemic. The UNWTO estimates that it will take 2.5 to 4 years for the industry to return to pre-pandemic levels of international tourist arrivals.
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