Middle East air passenger traffic in 2023 to reach 96.8% of pre-Covid levels

The region's passenger volumes will fully recover in 2024, with a projected 429 million travellers, Airports Council International World says

Terminal 3 at Dubai International Airport, the world's busiest hub by international passengers. AFP
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The Middle East's air passenger traffic is forecast to reach 96.8 per cent of pre-Covid levels in 2023, handling 394 million travellers, as the region continues its recovery from the effects of the pandemic.

The region's passenger volumes are expected to fully recover in 2024, with a projected 429 million travellers, or 105.4 per cent of 2019 levels, according to the Airports Council International World.

The Middle East was the fastest-recovering travel market in 2022 with this streak expected to continue in 2023, the trade association for airports – representing nearly 2,000 airports worldwide – said in its industry outlook for 2023–2024.

This comes as the Middle East's tourism sector has recorded the strongest post-pandemic rebound in the world, despite persistent global economic challenges, according to a separate report by HSBC.

The region, home to the biggest Arab economy, Saudi Arabia, and the global leisure and commercial hub of the UAE, is unique in recording a “total recovery” in terms of tourist arrivals in the first quarter of 2023, the bank said in its August report.

The number of tourist arrivals in the first three months of this year climbed 15 per cent compared with levels recorded in 2019.

ACI World projects that global air travel will nearly return to pre-pandemic levels by the end of 2023, with all regions expected to reach this mark in 2024.

Global volumes in 2023 will reach 8.6 billion passengers, which is 94.2 per cent of the 2019 level, before fully recovering in 2024.

Next year is expected to be a milestone for global passenger traffic recovery as it reaches 9.4 billion passengers, exceeding the 9.2 billion passengers recorded in 2019.

However, compared with the pre-Covid forecast that predicted 10.9 billion passengers globally in 2024, the effects of the pandemic represent a potential loss of 13.9 per cent, ACI World's data shows.

"Upside factors include the reopening of the Chinese market and surge in domestic travel, supply chain disruptions gradually subsiding and inflation slowing down," said Luis Felipe de Oliveira, ACI World's director general.

"While downside risks remain present ... we are filled with optimism about the industry's future.

"This sector remains a steadfast force in global economic recovery, bridging connections among people, cultures and economies.”

The Latin America and Caribbean region is forecast to be the first in the world to surpass its 2019 level.

This year, the region is estimated to reach 707 million passengers, or 102.9 per cent of the level in 2019. In 2024, the region is expected to welcome 759 million passengers, or 110.5 per cent of the pre-Covid level.

Emerging markets such as Colombia and Mexico are predicted to drive the region to recover beyond 2019 levels, the report said.

Africa is expected to reach 221 million passengers, or 96.3 per cent of the 2019 level, in 2023. The region is forecast to reach 253 million passengers, or 110.6 per cent of the pre-Covid level, by the end of 2024.

This steady growth is expected to be driven by emerging markets such as Egypt, Morocco and Tunisia, ACI World said.

Asia-Pacific is expected to record a "substantial jump" in passenger traffic in the first half of 2023 along with the continuing opening of the Chinese market.

However, its recovery is predicted to slow significantly in the second half of the year due to challenges in overseas tourism and looming economic concerns, the report said.

By the end of the year, the region is expected to reach 2.9 billion passengers, or 87.3 per cent of the 2019 level.

The Asia-Pacific region is expected to reach approximately 3.4 billion passengers, or 99.5 per cent of the pre-Covid level, in 2024.

Recovery in Europe is expected to slow this year and next, in contrast with the sharp surge recorded during its 2022 summer season, ACI World said.

By the end of 2023, about 2.3 billion passengers are expected in the region, or 95.5 per cent of the 2019 level. This will further increase in 2024 while at a slower pace, to about 2.5 billion passengers, or 101.4 per cent of the pre-pandemic level.

By the end of 2023, North America is estimated to reach two billion passengers, or 99.8 per cent of the 2019 level.

While the region showed a strong recovery during 2021 and 2022, driven by domestic travel, its growth for the next couple of years is expected to continue at a slower pace, ACI World said.

In 2024, passenger traffic in the region is forecast to reach 2.1 billion passengers, or 103.7 per cent of the pre-Covid level.

Updated: September 29, 2023, 4:46 AM