Europe: tourism will be slow until 2024

Although European travel demand is poised for a major recovery due to the high vaccination rates in Europe, volumes are still far from the pre-pandemic days, and that will not be surpassed until 2024, according to the latest ‘European Tourism Trends & Prospects’ quarterly report from the European Travel Commission (ETC).  It is likely pre-pandemic levels of European medical travel will also not be achieved until 2024.

The report says that it is clear to see the critical role vaccination programmes have already played in helping travel rebound.

The COVID-19 vaccine rollout was vital to the easing of entry requirements and boosting the appeal of travel during the summer season. However, the study points out that vaccination efforts will not be enough. As the winter months approach, it states that it is imperative that Europe strives to further restore the freedom of movement by implementing more holistic and coherent approaches for travel within and outside the EU.

Although the report does not specifically mention medical travel, European medical travel trends tend to follow those of tourism.

The ETC represents the national tourism organisations of Europe. Its 33-member tourism boards work together to build the value of tourism for all the diverse European destinations through cooperation in sharing best practice, market intelligence and promotion.

Despite a strong summer rebound, international tourist arrivals to Europe are forecast to be 60% below 2019 by the end of 2021. European tourist arrivals were down 77% halfway through the year relative to 2019.

The pressure to get vaccinated is intensifying. Austria has begun implementing a nationwide lockdown for the 2 million people who are unvaccinated or who haven’t recently recovered from COVID-19. Germany is preparing new legislation to stop unvaccinated people from going out to work. Slovakia has banned unvaccinated people from wellness centres. Other European countries are planning their own measures.

Medical tourism destinations, hospitals and clinics may have to decide whether or not to differentiate between vaccinated and unvaccinated domestic and international medical tourists.

The creation of the EU Digital COVID-19 Certificate was fundamental to ensuring safe travel across the region and helped to simplify cross-border mobility. Intra-regional travel as a result experienced an uplift and is set to account for 85% of European international arrivals in 2021, up from 77% in 2019.

The travel recovery observed has been different across destinations, with those that reopened their borders earlier to vaccinated travellers being the most favoured. As the first nation to reopen to COVID-free tourists, Greece delivered the strongest rebound in overnight terms (-19% vs. 2019), although foreign arrivals were weak. The strongest pick up in arrivals from 2019 rates was observed in Croatia (-37%). In contrast, Czech Republic (-94%) recorded the sharpest decline with stringent COVID-19 measures extended throughout the year.

All reporting European destinations enjoyed higher levels of hotel occupancy this summer compared to 2020, based on data for July-September. Several destinations reported occupancy rates close to 70%, including Slovenia, the UK, Monaco and Turkey. European air passenger growth also gained momentum over the months of June (-69%), July (-57%) and August (-49%) compared to 2019, although global revenue in August remained half of pre-COVID-19 levels. The relative improvement throughout the summer months was mainly driven by domestic air travel demand. People seem to be not travelling overseas as much and when they do, they use long haul much less. ETC observed a notable absence of long-haul travellers, with US arrivals to Europe remaining 90% below their 2019 levels for one third of reporting destinations.

Although European travel has made positive strides in 2021, there is still a long road ahead for international tourists in Europe.

Some large long-haul source markets, may potentially delay the recovery, presenting a lingering downside risk. The absence of Chinese travellers and medical tourists was sorely felt across Europe, with all reporting destinations posting declines over 90% compared to 2019.

International tourist arrivals to Europe are forecast to be 60% below 2019 by the end of 2021 with many other factors continuing to weigh on Europe’s tourism recovery. These include ever-changing COVID-19 restrictions and policies, renewed outbreaks and the confusion around the colour-coded EU travel system applied differently across European destinations.

The adoption of different systems for accepting non-EMA recognised vaccines may also continue to impact destinations heavily reliant on long-haul travel from China and Russia.