Tourism recovery gains momentum, says UNWTO

Caught napping, governments need to up their game
/ New Delhi
Tourism recovery gains momentum, says UNWTO

Middle East has seen traffic grow by 132 pc in Q1 of 2022 (IO photos)

In its latest report released today, the UNWTO says tourism around the world has continued to recover at a strong pace and destinations have received almost thrice the number of tourists in the first quarter of 2022 as compared to last year. It adds that Europe leads the rebound. However, even as its inbound numbers explode, most European nations have failed to boost their visa services to keep pace with demand, notably in India.
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Over 117 million people travelled overseas in the period January 1-March 31, 2022, a jump of 182 pc year on year, says the United Nations World Tourism Organisation. Releasing its quarterly figures, the UNWTO says that in the same period of 2021, only 41 million persons had travelled. As per the UNWTO World Tourism Barometer, of the additional 76 million international arrivals for the first three months, about 47 million were recorded in March, showing that the recovery is gathering pace.

Europe and Americas lead the recovery

The UNWTO data shows that during the first quarter of 2022, with a growth of over 280 pc, Europe welcomed almost four times as many international arrivals as in Q1 of 2021. It adds that a lot of this growth has come from the jump in intra-regional travel, meaning Europeans travelling to other countries within Europe. The Americas have seen their international arrivals grow more than double in the period, says UNWTO, having grown 117 pc. Though the growth is indeed impressive, the UNWTO adds that arrivals in Europe and the Americas were still 43 pc and 46 pc below 2019 levels respectively.

Next on the list of revival was the Middle East that has seen traffic grow by 132 pc in the period, though its totals still remain about 59 pc lower than the pre-pandemic period. Africa registered a 96 pc growth in the first quarter, though it still lags the 2019 figures by 61 pc. The worst performer in the world, as per the barometer, was Asia and the Pacific that saw a growth of 64 pc over 2021, but it is a huge 93 pc behind the pre-pandemic numbers, mainly because several destinations, notably China and some East Asian nations have remained closed to non-essential travel.

By sub region, the Caribbean and Southern Mediterranean Europe continue to show the fastest rates of recovery. In both, arrivals recovered to nearly 75 pc of 2019 levels, with some destinations reaching or exceeding pre-pandemic levels.

Doing away with Covid-19 travel restrictions

The UNWTO says that although international tourism remains 61 pc below 2019 levels, the gradual recovery is expected to continue throughout 2022, as more destinations ease or lift travel restrictions and pent-up demand is unleashed. As of June 2, 45 destinations (of which 31 are in Europe) had no Covid-19 related restrictions in place. In Asia, an increasing number of destinations have started to ease those restrictions, it adds.

Despite these positive prospects, a challenging economic environment coupled with the military offensive of the Russian Federation in Ukraine pose a downside risk to the ongoing recovery of international tourism.  The Russian offensive on Ukraine seems to have had a limited direct impact on overall results so far, although it is disrupting travel in Eastern Europe. However, the conflict is having major economic repercussions globally, exacerbating already high oil prices and overall inflation and disrupting international supply chains, which results in higher transport and accommodation costs for the tourism sector, says the report.

Governments caught napping by revival

Though the travel has revived significantly, many governments, notably the United States and several European Union countries have been caught unprepared to deal with the sharp jump in demand for visas by tourists, especially in large source markets like India where the demand has flared up, especially since March once the air travel restrictions were withdrawn.

Almost on a daily basis, there are several media reports about the long delays in getting visas – be it student visas or even tourism and business. This is largely because the foreign missions have consistently failed to ramp up their visa deliverance services which had been nearly shut down for over two years due to the pandemic. Thus, from an average time frame of a week or two for getting tourist visas to most European nations, now it is taking as much as two months, leading to chaos in the market and unnecessary losses for the travel industry.

The repeated incidents in India have led many associations of tour operators to ask the foreign missions to streamline their visa processes and time frames. The latest such missive was fired by the Outbound Tour Operators Association of India (OTOAI), that has asked the European Consulates and Embassies to streamline the Visa processes and guidelines.

The OTOAI, which represents over 2000 tour operators that provide outbound travel services from India, has written to the various missions and consulates of the European countries in India asking them for clarity and simplification of their travel visa processes. ‘‘India is an important market for the European countries and there is a huge potential for growth for outbound market – that coupled with the pent-up demand makes Indian outbound travellers an important segment for countries abroad. OTOAI strongly feels that a little cooperation on part of the Embassies and Consulates will help ease the visa process and motivate people to travel abroad,’’ the OTOAI said in a letter sent out just days ago.

It says that the wait for visa appointments that is almost a month-long for many missions and which can be ‘extremely disheartening to the traveller’. The other issue is the visa processing time, after submission of documents. The OTOAI says it is also extremely long and often takes it takes the travellers up to 4-5 weeks more to get their passports back. This creates many problems for the travellers as well as the travel trade professionals.

Though some missions say they are expediting their visa services, they may need to do much more as the UNWTO predicts that the momentum growth will accelerate rapidly in the next few weeks. The latest UNWTO Confidence Index showed a marked uptick. For the first time since the start of the pandemic, the index returned to levels of 2019, reflecting rising optimism among tourism experts worldwide, building on strong pent-up demand, in particular intra-European travel and US travel to Europe.

An overwhelming majority of tourism professionals (83 pc) see better prospects for 2022 compared to 2021, as long as the virus is contained and destinations continue to ease or lift travel restrictions. However, the ongoing closure of some major outbound markets, mostly in Asia and the Pacific, as well as the uncertainty derived from the Russia-Ukraine conflict, could delay the effective recovery of international tourism.

A higher number of experts (48 pc) now see a potential return of international arrivals to 2019 levels in 2023, a significant growth from 32 pc in the January survey, while the percentage indicating this could happen in 2024 or later (44 pc) has diminished compared to the January survey (64 pc). Also, by end April, international air capacity across the Americas, Africa, Europe, North Atlantic and the Middle East has reached or is close to 80 pc of pre-crisis levels and demand is following.

UNWTO has revised its outlook for 2022 due to stronger-than-expected results in the first quarter of 2022, a significant increase in flight reservations, and prospects from the UNWTO Confidence Index. International tourist arrivals are now expected to reach 55-70 pc of 2019 levels in 2022, depending on several circumstances including the rate at which destinations continue to lift travel restrictions, the evolution of the war in Ukraine, possible new outbreaks of coronavirus and global economic conditions, particularly inflation and energy prices.

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