The future awaiting global tourism

The coronavirus pandemic took the world by surprise and brought international tourism almost to a complete halt. The initial phases of a relative recovery are restoring connectivity between those outbound markets and tourist destinations that have controlled the spread of the coronavirus. However, the sector will have to undertake a far-reaching and rapid transformation to adapt to the new, post-COVID-19 international tourist who will demand more personalised, flexible and, above all, safer services.

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The outbreak of SARS-CoV-2 has been a global phenomenon. As of June, more than 10 million people had been infected and 500,000 had died as a result of COVID-19 worldwide. None of the 177 countries for which statistics are published by the Johns Hopkins University Coronavirus Research Center is virus-free and more than 25% of countries have a rate of over 1,000 cases per million people.1 This situation has led to unprecedented measures being taken to limit the international and domestic mobility of citizens around the world, causing the flow of international tourists to come to a standstill between March and June.

The implications of this stoppage in tourism for the world economy are far-reaching. The World Tourism Organization (UNWTO) is considering three scenarios for 2020, depending on when global travel restrictions begin to be lifted. The less adverse and more likely scenario is a 58% drop in global tourism assuming that borders will gradually open up from July onwards, which is already happening. On the other hand, a more extreme scenario, in which border restrictions are not lifted until December, would cause a drop of up to 78%.2 Consequently, even in the least pessimistic scenario the world's number of tourists would fall to figures not seen since the last century, dealing a hefty blow to a sector that generates more than 10% of global GDP and nearly 12% of the world's employment.

  • 1. See the interactive dashboard produced by the Johns Hopkins University to consult COVID-19 data at https://systems.jhu.edu/
  • 2. See «UNWTO World Tourism Barometer (May 2020)».
International tourism could shrink by 58%

according to World Tourism Organization estimates, a hefty blow to a sector that generates more than 10% of global GDP and nearly 12% of the world's employment.

A first step in understanding what the world's tourism will be like in the short term is to analyse population mobility indicators, a sine qua non for tourists to travel to their destination. Given that proximity to the tourist destination is going to be a fundamental aspect, we will look at the mobility situation within the main regions of the world: Europe, Asia and the Americas.

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Europe: coordinated relaxation with good prospects

In Europe, lockdown measures began in Italy on 7 March, when the government introduced restrictions on people's mobility, first in the Lombardy region and shortly afterwards throughout the country. Within a few weeks, the vast majority of European countries had already implemented similar measures and people's mobility on the continent was reduced to a bare minimum to ensure the supply of essential goods and services. Looking at the mobility indicators produced by Google from Google Maps application data, we can see that the lockdown measures were extraordinarily effective in Europe (see the chart below). In just 20 days, mobility in commercial establishments throughout Western Europe fell by around 80% (from –62% in Germany to –91% in Spain). Although this gradually recovered when the lockdown started to be lifted (which began in May in many EU countries), by the end of June it had still not regained pre-COVID-19 levels: in the UK, the country that is furthest behind in lifting the lockdown, mobility is still 50% lower, while in Germany, Italy and France mobility in commercial premises is «only» 20% below pre-COVID-19 levels.

Community mobility regarding commercial premises

Change with respect to the baseline* (%)

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Note: Data based on 7-day average. (*) The baseline corresponds to the median mobility recorded on the same weekday between 3 January and 6 February. Source: CaixaBank Research, based on the Google Mobility Report.

Once the recovery in domestic mobility was underway, as from the end of June Europe has focused on lifting restrictions to international tourism flows. Borders have gradually started to be reopened and the mandatory quarantine measures when entering the destination country are being withdrawn. This is a somewhat more complex and delicate process, since it depends on the COVID-19 situation both in the destination region and in the tourist's home region. Nevertheless, the prospects for a revival in domestic and international tourism flows on the continent appear relatively positive, in view of several factors. The first is that many of the southern EU countries, where most of the tourist destinations are located and where the coronavirus hit the hardest, have managed to control the spread of the virus after a very strict lockdown and some spikes which, at present, appear to be localised. Secondly, the outbound markets in northern Europe, with a few exceptions, seem to have been able to detect new outbreaks and are taking the necessary measures to allow their citizens to travel in a safe and controlled manner. Last but not least, in the case of reopening borders, the EU and the Schengen area are pushing for a degree of coordination between EU countries that is unknown in any other region of the world.

The Schengen area

has forced a high degree of coordination among EU countries that will be key to kickstarting tourism's recovery in Europe

However, while the possibilities of connecting European tourists to a wide range of destinations within the EU seem favourable, there is still a long way to go. If we look at the following chart, with data on airport connectivity in Europe's main airports between 1 January and 30 June, we can see just how far off we are. Air mobility is currently 67% below the level observed between January and February, although slightly above the figure recorded in April when it was 92% below pre-COVID levels. In light of Europe's low international mobility, it is obviously early days yet for the recovery in tourism.

Daily airport connections for the main airports of Europe

Number of flights

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Note: Flights departing from the airports of London (Heathrow), Paris (CDG), Frankfurt, Amsterdam, Madrid, Rome, Zurich and Moscow have been included. Source: CaixaBank Research, based on data from OpenSky Network.
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Asia: the driving force of tourism is advancing at a slow pace

Asia has often been used as an example when interpreting possible future scenarios for the tourism industry. This is hardly surprising as the region was responsible for 38% of global tourism expenditure in 2019 and received more than 360 million tourists a year (25% of the total). Moreover, some Asian countries are at a more mature stage in the pandemic, suggesting they might also be at a more advanced stage in the recovery. It should be noted that on 8 April the city of Wuhan, where the first outbreak of COVID-19 was detected, had just completed a 76-day lockdown. At that time, Europe was still immersed in its earliest and most severe stage of lockdown. However, there are some differences that have led to the timelines in Europe and Asia overlapping and prevent us from being able to make predictions based on the Asian experience.

According to what can be observed from domestic mobility indicators, the reaction in South East Asia was, in general, more measured than in Europe although much more heterogeneous than on the Old Continent.3 Countries such as Hong Kong and South Korea took very early but less severe measures and saw the mobility of their populations reduced by just 30%. Singapore, until it suffered a spike in early April, had barely limited the mobility of its citizens at all. India, however, is a case apart, with a much later but much more intense reaction than that of South East Asia.

Faced with this earlier but contained reaction, the Asian countries were better able to anticipate the health crisis and avoid overloading their healthcare systems, although they also delayed the time it took to control the spread of the coronavirus, to the point that, by the end of June, countries such as Hong Kong and Japan were at the same stage of lifting their lockdowns as Europe, with domestic tourism still in its early stages of recovery and restrictions on international arrivals.

  • 3. It is important to note that Google does not have mobility data for China because Google software is banned for Chinese devices, even though Android is the most widespread operating system.

Community mobility regarding commercial premises

Change with respect to the baseline* (%)

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Note: Data based on 7-day average. (*) The baseline corresponds to the median mobility recorded on the same weekday between 3 January and 6 February. Source: CaixaBank Research, based on the Google Mobility Report.

Daily airport connections for the main airports in South East Asia

Number of flights    

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Note: Flights departing from the airports of Hong Kong, Tokyo, Osaka, Seoul, Taipei, Singapore and Manila were included. Source: CaixaBank Research, based on data from OpenSky Network.
The situation is still complex for Asia's tourism industry

as restrictions are still in place on the entry of foreigners across the continent.

As a result, the situation is still complex for Asia's tourism industry. Looking at the air mobility data shown in the chart above, we can see how the number of flights in the area at the end of June was down by almost 60%, albeit far from the minimums recorded during the second half of April. Despite this, restrictions on the entry of foreigners remained in place in June in all countries across the region, according to data from the International Air Transport Agency (IATA). As long as there is no clear coordination between countries for the controlled reopening of borders, as in the case of the EU, tourist flows are unlikely to resume in Asia.

The Americas: a bad outlook for the world's latest COVID hotspot

The health situation on the American continent is the most worrying. In the last month, 54% of new COVID-19 cases occurred in countries on the American continent. The number of positive cases in Brazil, Chile, Mexico, Colombia and Argentina tripled in June and doubled in the United States and Peru. In other words, the Americas have become the global hotspot for the pandemic. As can be seen in the following charts, the only country with a clear downward trend since May is Canada.

Incidence of COVID-19 infections in the Americas

Positive daily cases per 100,000 inhabitants

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Note: The shaded areas reflect daily data while the lines reflect 7-day averages. Source: CaixaBank Research, based on data from Johns Hopkins University CRC.

The most worrying aspect is that this complicated health situation has occurred in spite of reduced mobility. Although the measures applied by national governments have not been as far-reaching as in Europe and there was some delay to their implementation, according to domestic mobility indicators the population of Latin American countries is 50% less mobile than usual. Mobility has improved slightly in Canada and the US, although there are doubts regarding the sustainability of this trend in the latter given the extent of the second wave. Because of this situation, the continent's tourism sector has been at a standstill since mid-March, with air mobility falling by up to 63% compared with its pre-crisis level by the end of June.

Community mobility regarding commercial premises

Change with respect to the baseline* (%)

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Note: Data based on 7-day average. (*) The baseline corresponds to the median mobility recorded on the same weekday between 3 January and 6 February. Source: CaixaBank Research, based on the Google Mobility Report.

Daily airport connections for the main airports of America

Number of flights   

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Note: Flights departing from the airports of Atlanta, Los Angeles, San Francisco, New York (JFK), Toronto and São Paulo were included. Source: CaixaBank Research, based on data from OpenSky Network.
The health crisis in many American countries

makes it impossible for the tourism industry to recover at present.

We can therefore state that the outlook for a recovery in American tourism is particularly bad. First and foremost, the region must undertake the necessary lockdown measures to tackle the health crisis. Only when the health situation is under control will mobility be able to recover enough to revive the tourism sector. However, what we have learned from the experience of Europe and Asia is that controlling the growth of infections is a slow process and we therefore expect a very late recovery for the region as a whole.

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Post-COVID-19 global tourism: huge uncertainty and big changes in the medium term

This situation has led the UNWTO to predict a fall in international tourist flows of over 58% in its forecasts for 2020. Despite this, and under the right conditions, once international mobility gains ground the recovery in global tourism is expected to be relatively rapid, albeit remaining significantly below 2019 levels next year. The UNWTO predicts the number of international tourists will go from nearly a 100% decrease during Q2 2020 to «just» 30% below pre-crisis levels by the beginning of 2021, thanks to the recovery of European and Asian regions. It is therefore important to focus on the medium term, on what analysts have come to call «post-COVID-19 tourism».

It is unlikely that tourism will recover from the current situation without undergoing some major changes along the way. The biggest transformation, and probably the great driving force behind the renewal of the whole sector, will be how tourists want to travel. Before the sudden coronavirus outbreak, tourism demand was already showing signs of changing, albeit gradual. There was strong growth in the number of tourists choosing destinations with a higher quality supply and where a larger number of services were available, in addition to the emergence of ecologically-aware tourists who prefer sustainable, innovative destinations.

The arrival of COVID-19 will accelerate changes that were already underway:

quality and sustainability as the flagships for a new kind of tourism.

The coronavirus will probably not change the direction of the trends we had already been observing but will help to speed them up considerably. Certain factors could be vital in understanding what the new post-COVID-19 tourism will be like:

1. Avoiding crowds and sustainable destinations: it seems more evident than ever that sustainability will play a key role in the future. Just a few weeks at home have made it clear that the individual action of each of us has a great environmental impact, raising the awareness of a large proportion of society. With this change in attitude, destinations that can offer a sustainable, more personalised solution will most probably become more attractive to an increasingly important share of the demand. On the other hand, as long as there is no vaccine or effective treatment, tourists will prefer destinations where social distancing can be easily maintained over more crowded locations.

2. Personalised services: Post-coronavirus tourists will appreciate being able to personalise their experience rather than the attractions of mass tourism. In other words, the added value of the tourist supply will become more important. Given this change, the winners will be those destinations focusing on smaller volume but offering unique experiences.

3. Digitisation: Future tourists will be much more digital because today's society already is. We must not forget that we live in a world where the use of digital media has increased dramatically due to the need to stay connected at home, both for work and personal reasons. As a result, many citizens who previously had not mastered digital channels now appreciate them and are likely to demand them when travelling.

4. Safety and health: Certainty has always been a very important factor when choosing a tourist venue and, after a shock like the coronavirus, accessibility to and the quality of the healthcare system will be factors to take into account when deciding on a location.

5. Closeness and connectivity: This article has already mentioned that connectivity is a fundamental factor for tourism; an obvious but nonetheless vital fact. It is very likely that the first connectivity channels to be reactivated will be those of medium and short range. Until a vaccine is available, short-range tourism (domestic and nearby countries) will offer many more options for tourists and greater certainty should they want to return home. Similarly, those destinations that can offer a convenient connection could significantly improve their prospects.

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The changes in the way tourism is carried out must be accompanied by an effort to transform the supply, which needs to focus on innovation and on offering a larger number of services, the expansion of less exploited destinations, an improvement in connectivity and, in short, something the sector itself has been focusing on for years: quality rather than quantity.4  This is therefore the right time to speed up the investments required to adapt the sector to this new global tourism market. Mobilisation of the sector's business community will be key, as will support from public administrations, not only to overcome this crisis but also to ensure the industry remains a sustainable pillar of our economy in the future.

In conclusion, it is clear that the current situation is one of unprecedented complexity for the global tourism sector, both in the short and medium term. In 2020, global tourism demand is likely to be less than half of what it was in 2019 and will continue to be hugely dependent on the recovery of people's mobility and our ability to maintain a contained and controlled level of infection until an effective coronavirus vaccine or treatment is discovered. Given this situation, Europe can be seen as a pilot project for the revival of global tourism because it has succeeded in reactivating people's mobility and has embarked on the process of reopening borders. In the medium term, changes in society will speed up the trend towards new types of tourism. As a result, the supply will have to be adapted even more quickly than was already occurring towards a more sustainable, digital, safe and good quality tourism.

  • 4. See the «Tourism Sector Report. S2 2019» and the «Tourism Sector Report. 1S 2020» available at www.caixabankresearch.com.
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