Industries in Depth

How quickly is tourism recovering from COVID-19?

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The pandemic helped fuel a decline in tourism globally. Image: Unsplash/Markus Spiske

Victoria Masterson
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Travel and Tourism

  • Tourists spent an extra 1.8 billion nights in the European Union in 2021 compared with the year before.
  • But this is still almost 40% lower than pre-pandemic levels, according to EU statistics.
  • Tourism is an important sector for the world economy, and is expected to continue recovering gradually in 2022.
  • However, there are still risks – including Russia's invasion of Ukraine and COVID-19 variants.

Tourism was hit particularly hard by the pandemic, as lockdowns restricted people to travelling around their homes and neighbourhoods rather than around the world. But there are now signs that tourist numbers are starting to recover as limitations on movement are eased.

There was a 27% rise in nights spent at EU tourist accommodation in 2021, according to Eurostat, the statistical office of the EU. This took the total to 1.8 billion, although this was still 37% less than in 2019, before COVID-19.


What is the World Economic Forum doing to manage emerging risks from COVID-19?

A chart showing nights spent in tourist accommodation in the EU, 2005-2021
Tourists to the European Union in 2021 spent 30% more nights there than in 2020, but numbers are still down on pre-pandemic levels. Image: Eurostat

Where tourists went

Greece, Spain and Croatia saw the biggest rises in visitors last year, with the number of nights spent at tourist accommodation jumping by more than 70%. Trips to Austria, Latvia and Slovakia fell, but by less than 18%.

“This shows signs of recovery in the tourism sector,” Eurostat says.

However, when 2021 tourist night numbers are compared with 2019, it shows some countries lost more than half their bookings. Latvia, Slovakia, Malta and Hungary were the worst hit.

Denmark and the Netherlands, on the other hand, were the least affected countries. They saw drops of less than 20% in nights spent in tourist accommodation.

Eurostat says the figures are “far less dramatic” than the contrast between 2019 and 2020, when tourism in the EU halved.

A chart showing annual estimates of nights spent in tourist accommodation, 2021 compared with 2020 and 2019
Tourism in the EU increased in 2021 compared with 2020, when visitor numbers had halved. Image: Eurostat

Tourism supports jobs

More than 2 million businesses – mostly small and medium-sized companies – make up the EU’s tourism industry, according to the European Parliament.

These firms employ an estimated 12.3 million people, but worker numbers increase to 27.3 million when related sectors are taken into account.

Across the EU in 2018, travel and tourism made up about 4% of GDP – the total value of products and services produced in a country – or 10% if closely related sectors are taken into account.

Three-quarters of these tourism businesses operated in either accommodation or serving food and drink. Italy, France, Spain and Germany were home to 55% of the EU’s tourism firms in 2018.

A chart showing international tourist arrivals by percentage change over 2019
Arrivals of international tourists globally are creeping back from their 2020 lows. Image: World Tourism Organization
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Global growth and risks

Tourism is the world’s third-biggest export sector, according to the World Tourism Organization (UNWTO), a special United Nations agency.

International tourist arrivals globally grew 130% in January 2022, UNWTO says. And this was despite the Omicron variant of COVID-19 slowing down the speed of the recovery.

The war in Ukraine also poses a new risk to the global tourism industry – by potentially disrupting the return of confidence to travel, UNWTO says.

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Industries in DepthHealth and Healthcare SystemsGeographies in Depth
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