They were strange years, 2020 and 2021. The world seemed to stop turning, travel ground to a halt. Overnight, we forgot our anxieties about over-tourism and worried more about cancelling our trips and getting refunds. The figures are staggering. The World Tourism Organisation says that the number of International travellers, which had peaked at 1.46 billion in 2019, collapsed to 406 million in 2020, and barely improved to 459 million in 2021.
It has taken another two years for the industry to recover from the shock – frankly, airports and air traffic control systems still seem to be struggling – and for many people to feel confident enough to start booking again. But all the signs are that this year the recovery is almost complete. WTO’s figures indicate International travellers reached nearly 1 billion in 2022, and it looks as though we are now once more approaching the level we saw in 2019. So it is looking more and more likely that 2024 will be the biggest year for travel that the world has ever known.
In some places, the breakthrough is happening already. The WTO recently published data on the ten countries which are the biggest contributors to world tourism – in other words, whose populations travel abroad the most – for the first six months of this year. It shows that the numbers of international travellers departing from Germany, Italy, the United States and the UK were all up more than ten per cent compared with the same period in the year before the pandemic. And it seems that the British are currently the most resilient and determined of all, showing growth of 16 per cent since 2019.
The upward trend is reflected in the latest figures from IAG, the company which owns British Airways. They show a rise of 69 per cent when comparing the first three months of this year with the same period last year. “Customer demand currently remains strong in all IAG’s airlines and in all regions, particularly for leisure customers,” it commented.
Meanwhile, Ryanair, which operates flights between many European countries, has recorded a 15 per cent growth in passenger numbers for the first ten months of this year, compared with the first ten months of 2022. And easyJet has just announced that its overall capacity for 2023 looks as though it will have increased to around 97 per cent of 2019 levels. That’s similar to leading tour operator TUI’s report about this summer’s bookings, which were are back up to about 96 per cent of pre-pandemic numbers.
What is putting the breaks on overall is that some key markets are still a way off the 2019 mark. The Chinese remain 29 per cent down, while the Koreans (-19 per cent) and, perhaps surprisingly, the Australians (-26 per cent) have also been slow to start travelling internationally again. But those numbers are likely to have improved already, because the key months of July-October 2023 have not been collated yet.
In short, as the New Year looms, it is clear that we are once again partying like it’s 2019 and our enthusiasm is on course to ramp up next year too. Our hunger to seek out some guaranteed sunshine, see new places, engage with unfamiliar cultures, and try new experiences has never been greater. And this is despite steep price rises, a near recession all over Europe, war in the Ukraine and Gaza and all the uncertainties caused by climate change.
But surely there are limits on how much travel can grow, and whether we want it to? There are obviously environmental concerns, and certainly some destinations are reaching the sort of saturation point that was becoming a problem before the pandemic. Venice is one of the best examples of this. This year it has suffered an average of twice as many day visitors as the 50,000 which the city’s Ca’ Foscari University calculated, in 2018, to be manageable. Whether the €5 fee for day-trippers proposed from next spring will be enough to stem this is another question. And it now has more tourist beds available to those who want to stay than number of residents in the city.
But, Venice aside, the current key to whether or not world tourism keeps on growing is not so much the amount of accommodation available. Generally-speaking, there are enough hotels, apartments, villas, Air BNBs and holiday cottages in the world to absorb the rising demand in the shorter term. And even where accommodation is tight, it seems we are not deterred and are willing to be more flexible in our plans to get around the problem. Nick Longman, CEO of Audley Travel, which specialises in tailor-made long haul itineraries told me the other week, that where there is pressure on availability during high season, more and more of his clients are amenable to book off-season or shoulder season instead.
What really makes a difference to the potential for travel to expand is the availability of airline seats. And all signs are that, as far as UK and European airlines are concerned, there will be significant growth next year. Many had already announced expanded programmes for 2024 and several have recently added to that.
Last week, Steve Heapy, CEO of Jet2.com and Jet2holidays, said that it was already expanding its summer 2024 programme, by adding 70,000 extra seats to destinations in Mainland Spain, the Canaries, the Balearics, Portugal, Turkey, Croatia, and Greece from eight UK airports. This was provoked by seeing “strong and sustained demand” for summer ’24, with the late summer season proving particularly popular. The week before, easyJet had also announced 12 new routes from eight UK airports to service its summer 2024 programme.
The only fly in the ointment seems to be whether or not the airlines can get hold of enough planes to meet the demand. Ryanair said in September that it was suffering delays in the delivery of some of the 57 new aircraft it currently has on order from Boeing, though it still hopes to resolve the issue in time for the peak summer programme in 2024.
So, for better or worse, it looks as though more of the world will be going places next year than ever before.%n