Middle East tourism predicted to return to pre-pandemic levels in 2023

Region had the strongest international rebound last year after events such as Expo 2020 Dubai and Fifa World Cup

Major events across the Middle East such as Expo 2020 Dubai helped boost international tourism in 2022. Photo: David Jimenez/Expo 2020 Dubai
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The Middle East could experience a return to pre-pandemic tourism numbers this year, according to the latest data from the United Nations World Tourism Organisation.

The region had the strongest resurgence in international travel last year, with arrivals climbing to 83 per cent of pre-pandemic numbers. Big events including Expo 2020 Dubai, the Fifa World Cup in Qatar and Hajj pilgrimage in Saudi Arabia helped drive visitors back to the Middle East.

International tourism figures could reach 80 to 95 per cent of pre-pandemic levels, according to the first UNWTO World Tourism Barometer of the year.

The Fifa World Cup Qatar 2022 attracted plenty of visitors to the Middle East. Reuters

More than 900 million travelled internationally last year, double the number of travellers in 2021. Despite this stronger-than-expected recovery, international tourism bounced back to only 63 per cent of pre-pandemic levels.

“A new year brings more reason for optimism for global tourism. UNWTO anticipates a strong year for the sector even in the face of diverse challenges, including the economic situation and continued geopolitical uncertainty. Economic factors may influence how people travel in 2023 and UNWTO expects demand for domestic and regional travel to remain strong and help drive the sector's wider recovery,” said UNWTO secretary-general Zurab Pololikashvili.

Europe witnessed the next strongest recovery with 585 million arrivals last year. That number takes the world's largest destination region to almost 80 per cent of its pre-pandemic levels thanks to a particularly strong summer season.

More than 900 million tourists travelled internationally last year, double the number of travellers in 2021. AFP

Some destinations around the world are following their own trend, and have already surpassed 2019 levels, said UNWTO.

These include the US Virgin Islands, where visitor numbers went up 27 per cent in 2022, Albania and Honduras, which both recorded a 17 per cent increase in international arrivals, and Sint Maarten, where tourist arrivals were up 15 per cent.

Other destinations that enjoyed a boom last year were Andorra, Dominican Republic, El Salvador, Curacao, Colombia, Ethiopia and Liechtenstein.

China's reopening is good news for international tourism

China's reopening will be good news for tourism this year, with Asian destinations set to experience the biggest impact of it. Getty Images

There could also be more good news for travel following China's reopening. The lifting of pandemic-related restrictions in the world's largest outbound market is expected to boost tourism numbers this year.

Asian destinations are likely to feel the biggest impact as travel resumes from China, although how many Chinese travellers will venture abroad will be shaped by the availability and cost of air travel, visa regulations and Covid-19 restrictions. By mid-January, 32 countries had imposed specific travel restrictions on travel from China, UNWTO found.

Airlines continue to add more flights and capacity across networks that will further contribute to the ongoing recovery of international tourism this year. Despite many airlines resuming routes and bringing aircraft back into service last year, international seat capacity through September 2022 remained 37 per cent below 2019 levels.

Domestic tourism will also play its role in supporting the sector's recovery as travellers seek out destinations closer to home and crave experiences in nature, open-air activities and rural experiences.

Challenges that might slow tourism recovery this year include high inflation, interest rates, a spike in oil and food prices and fears of a global recession, as well as uncertainty from Russia's war on Ukraine and health worries related to Covid-19.

Updated: January 18, 2023, 11:09 AM