The travel and tourism sector in the Middle East is forecast to grow about 27 per cent this year, slightly behind the global average of nearly 31 per cent, following a 51 per cent drop in 2020, according to the World Travel and Tourism Council (WTTC).
Slow vaccination rates in some countries and restrictions in key international source markets have prevented people from travelling to the region, hindering the sector’s recovery in the Middle East, WTTC said.
After a loss of about 1.2 million travel and tourism jobs last year when Covid-19 travel restrictions brought international mobility to a halt, employment in the sector in the Middle East is set to rise by 1 per cent in 2021, according to the council.
However, employment could increase an annual 8.2 per cent in 2022, providing an additional 470,000 travel and tourism jobs to a total of 6.2 million people employed in the sector.
“Our research clearly shows that while the Middle East’s travel and tourism sector is slowly beginning to recover, it is still far from pre-pandemic levels in terms of the sector’s contribution to the region’s economy and employment,” Julia Simpson, WTTC president and chief executive, said.
“As we look into the future, the Middle East has strong growth potential following the reopening of its borders to international travellers. We have seen countries such as Saudi Arabia and the UAE implement policies to restart international travel safely and we hope to see a harmonised approach across the region.”
The Covid-19 pandemic brought the travel and tourism sector to a near-standstill in 2020, with border closures, grounded aircraft and massive job losses.
The number of travel and tourism jobs worldwide is expected to grow only 0.7 per cent this year, with the sector hampered by movement restrictions and uneven access to Covid-19 vaccines, the World Travel and Tourism Council said in a separate report this month.
Governments could save almost 19 million jobs before the end of 2021 if they continued to loosen travel restrictions and allowed travellers to show digital proof of vaccination and testing, the council said.
Before the Covid-19 pandemic, the Middle East’s travel and tourism sector’s contribution to economies was $270 billion (8.9 per cent of the total output), the council said.
The estimated growth for the Middle East is ahead of other regions such as Europe and Latin America and represents a year-on-year increase of $36bn to the region’s economy, the WTTC said.
The Middle East could see a year-on-year increase of 28 per cent in 2022, representing a further boost of $47bn, the research found.
While the local economy benefited from a rise in domestic spend of 38.6 per cent this year and a projected increase of 19 per cent in 2022, recent changes to international travel restrictions are expected to provide a significant boost to international spending, which is critical to the region’s economy, according to the WTTC.
International spending is expected to grow about 38 per cent this year, driven by a rise in visitors from neighbouring countries, the council said.
With more international visitors expected from outside the region next year, the WTTC estimated a further year-on-year increase in international travel spend of nearly 52 per cent in 2022.
The sector could accelerate its recovery if governments worldwide implement five measures. These measures include allowing fully vaccinated travellers to move freely, irrespective of their origin or eventual destination.
Another measure is the implementation of digital solutions, which enable all travellers to prove their Covid-19 status and speed up the process at borders.
For safe international travel to restart fully, governments must also recognise all vaccines authorised by the World Health Organisation.
The WTTC also said there needs to be continued support of the Covax/Unicef initiative to ensure equitable distribution of vaccines around the world. The continued implementation of enhanced health and safety protocols will also support the recovery.
If these measures are implemented before the end of 2021, the Middle East travel and tourism sector’s contribution to GDP could rise by 33 per cent ($44bn) and a further year-on-year rise of 30 per cent ($53bn) in 2022, the council said.
Domestic spending could increase by 40 per cent this year, followed by nearly 22 per cent growth in 2022, according to the research.
However, international spending could outpace domestic spending this year, with a year-on-year increase of 50 per cent, followed by a similar rise next year of 52 per cent, the council said.
This could have a positive effect on employment in the region, with a 5.7 per cent increase in jobs this year and a year-on-year increase of about 10 per cent in 2022. These additional jobs would bring the total number of people working in the sector to 6.6m in 2022, approaching pre-pandemic levels.