While few industries have been spared by the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, even fewer have been hit harder than the tourism sector. And while it is impossible to gauge the full extent of disruption brought on by COVID-19, the World Tourism Organization (UNWTO) published estimates on how the pandemic will affect international tourist arrivals in 2020 under three different scenarios.
Unfortunately, the pandemic’s impact on the tourism industry is expected to be devastating, even under the most optimistic of the three scenarios. Assuming the opening of borders and the gradual lifting of travel restrictions begins in early July, the UNWTO expects international tourist arrivals to drop by 58 percent to 610 million this year. That would set the global travel industry back to 1998, when the number of international travelers was last so low. It could get worse, however, if travel restrictions remain in place until later in the year. Assuming they are eased as late as December, the UNWTO sees international tourist arrivals fall as low as 320 million, a level last seen in the mid-80s and possibly costing the industry $1+ trillion.
Prior to the coronavirus outbreak, the global tourism industry 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, tourist numbers only dipped twice in the past two decades: in 2003, when the SARS outbreak led to a 0.4 percent drop in arrivals, and in 2009, when the global financial crisis caused a 4 percent drop in international travel.