The COVID-19 Pandemic Has Cost the Travel Industry $320 Billion Dollars

Experts don't predict a rebound until at least summer 2021

Spain Eases Lockdown As Death Rate Slows
Xavi Torrent / Getty Images

For months, analysts and industries have been predicting just how badly the coronavirus pandemic will ultimately affect the tourism industry. Well, according to data from the United Nations World Tourism Organization (UNWTO), the numbers are finally in, and, as many predicted, it's not great.

From January through May of this year, international tourist arrivals dropped by 56 percent, almost entirely due to the near-global border closures and worldwide lockdowns instated to help curb the spread of COVID-19. Crunching the numbers, UNWTO says that loss of approximately 300 million tourists works out to a $320 billion loss in revenue—or, as the organization compared, three times more than the estimated damage caused by 2008's global economic crisis, a disastrous loss the tourism industry only truly began to recover from nearly a decade later.

The catastrophic loss has prompted Zurab Pololikashvili, the organization's secretary-general, to speak out about the importance of rebooting tourism around the globe once it is safe to do so. Pololikashvili has taken the lead in reminding travelers that people and countries rely on the tourism industry for their livelihoods. However, the secretary-general recognizes that prematurely opening borders and relaxing travel restrictions is not the answer. "Governments in every world region have a dual responsibility," she said. "To prioritize public health while also protecting jobs and businesses."

While summer brought a glimmer of hope and the first steady uptick in travel numbers for months, TSA recently reported a 4 percent decrease in passengers going through security. It was the first weekly decline in air travel since April. It's speculated that this drop in numbers is due to a resurgence in fear over the U.S.'s climbing coronavirus case numbers. TL;DR: Passengers have, once again, likely become less comfortable and less trusting of travel.

Compared to past years, the UNWTO Confidence Index has been at record lows since January—a stark contrast to the 3 to 4 percent increase in international tourist arrivals worldwide that was predicted by the group in January. Pololikashvili added that as countries, states, and regions consider reopening for travel, "they also need to maintain the spirit of cooperation and solidarity that has defined our response to this shared challenge." She suggests that they "refrain from making unilateral decisions that may undermine the trust and confidence we have been working so hard to build."

Rebuilding the tourism industry and traveler trust is likely to take some time and a lot of patience. None of the members on UNWTO's Panel of Experts are holding their breath for a significant rebound in international tourism this year. Several more optimistic members believe we'll start to see recovery in early 2021, while the majority of panel members aren't expecting it to return until summertime.

Still, there are a variety of uncertainties at play, least of all the possibility of a second or seasonal wave, and long-reaching overall economic impacts of the pandemic. Many destinations, though now open to tourism, still have quarantine restrictions, strict health and safety rules, or are still going through the steps of reopening within cities, effectively limiting tourist activities. Plus, two of the world's largest travel markets—China and the United States—have entry restrictions placed on them from other countries. 

Was this page helpful?