Recovery of European tourism ‘in sight this summer’ though international travel will still get no better than hitting half pre-pandemic levels after 'catastrophic' start to 2021

13 July, 2021

Improvements in vaccination rates and the introduction of the EU Digital COVID Certificate is providing hope for a tourism rebound in Europe over the summer months with intra-European trips expected to account for over 80% of Europe's travel in 2021.

European travel activity is set to build some momentum moving into the peak summer months due to the gradual easing of restrictions, the ramp-up in vaccinations, and the EU's recent reopening to more countries and fully vaccinated travellers from abroad, according to the latest quarterly 'European Tourism Trends & Prospects' report published by the European Travel Commission (ETC). It predicts travel demand is expected to pick up considerably in the second half of 2021, though international arrivals will still remain 49% below pre-pandemic levels in 2021.

The report notes that this summer season is essential for the sector as European travel demand remained weak in early 2021 - international tourist arrivals dropped -83% in the first quarter of the year compared to the same period in 2020. Meanwhile, downside risks linger following the surge in infections of the more transmissible COVID-19 Delta variant, which could force the return of travel restrictions.

In view of the rapidly advancing vaccination programmes, which reduce pressure on national health systems and protect our most vulnerable, Europe is now "managing the COVID risks well both for locals and our long-awaited travellers," says Luís Araújo, president, ETC. "We therefore believe that safe travel is possible this summer," he adds.

Hopes for summer relief are high following the catastrophic start of 2021 in European tourism, with latest available data indicating that three in five destinations posted declines over -80% in international tourist arrivals. Austria has so far suffered the greatest percentage decline in visitors, according to the research. COVID-19 tight containment measures wiped out expectations of a winter tourism season, resulting in a -97% plunge in tourist arrivals to the Alpine country, it notes.

On the contrary, Croatia significantly outperformed other European destinations, reporting a +23% increase in visitor arrivals. The country has led the way in waiving most COVID-19 travel entry restrictions for international travellers provided they had been vaccinated, could present a negative test, or had recovered from the virus.

Intra-European travel is expected to bolster travel demand in the second half of 2021, with improving epidemiological situation across Europe enabling governments to ease restrictions and satisfy the longing among people to travel again. The latest forecast from ETC shows that intra-European travel will account for 83% of Europe's inbound arrivals in 2021 compared to 77% in 2019.

As vaccinations gather pace across Europe with over 62% of the EU's adult population having received at least one vaccine dose, European travel demand this summer is projected to catch up.

ETC's data shows that 54% of surveyed Europeans intend to book a trip once they have been vaccinated against COVID-19. The EU's Digital COVID Certificate, active since 01-Jul-2021, is also expected to support the release of pent-up travel demand and accumulated excess savings during the pandemic. Over half (57%) of Europeans feel much more optimistic about planning trips in the coming months thanks to vaccination rollouts, while 25% are neutral and 18% remain unconvinced, according to ETC's 'Monitoring Sentiment for Domestic and Intra-European Travel - Wave 7' research from Jun-2021.

The optimism in intra-European travel remains tainted by pessimism over the return of long-haul travel, where demand is projected to recover more slowly, with barriers set to remain in place well beyond the end of 2021. While domestic and intra-European travel is widely expected to return to 2019 volumes by 2022 and 2023 respectively, travel from long-haul source markets is not likely to recover until 2025.

The US market is expected to make the most significant contribution to Europe-wide travel demand growth in the coming years. Announcements to welcome vaccinated American travellers have already boosted Transatlantic travel to destinations such as Iceland, Croatia and Greece, according to May-2021 data. Research from ForwardKeys shows issued tickets from the US to Croatia (+0.5%) and Iceland (+22.7%) have already surpassed 2019 levels, while Greece is just -10.9% behind.

China is also expected to make a sizeable contribution to European travel growth over the next decade. Despite accounting for a smaller proportion of arrivals to the region this decade, an expected average annual growth rate of +12% should see Chinese arrivals contribute 4.7% of overall arrivals growth to European destinations over the period 2019-30. Right now though, while domestic traffic in China continues to show remarkable recovery to pre-pandemic levels, Chinese international travel remains stagnant for now.