Middle East leads recovery rates for international tourist arrivals

DUBAI: International tourist arrivals and the travel and tourism sector’s contribution to global GDP are expected to return to pre-pandemic levels this year, according to the latest World Economic Forum travel and tourism study.

The WEF’s Travel & Tourism Development Index 2024, published once every two years in collaboration with the University of Surrey, analyzes the travel and tourism sectors of 119 countries. TTDI scores and rankings are based on a variety of factors and policies that contribute to the development of a country’s travel and tourism sector, such as sustainability, infrastructure and resources.

The global tourism industry is expected to recover from the COVID-19 pandemic and even exceed the levels seen before the outbreak. This growth is driven by a marked increase in the demand for travel, which coincides with countries investing in tourism and cultural attractions as well as better flight availability. 

“This year marks a turning point for the travel and tourism sector, which we know has the capacity to unlock growth and serve communities through economic and social transformation,” said Francisco Betti, head of the Global Industries team at the WEF. 

However, not all countries will recover equally. Although 71 of the 119 ranked economies increased their scores since 2019, the average index score rose just 0.7 percent above pre-pandemic levels.

Despite a promising future, the travel and tourism sector is reeling from the after effects of the pandemic. Labor shortages continue, while other factors like air route capacity and capital investment struggle to keep up with demand. Combined with growing macroeconomic, geopolitical and environmental risks, and worsened by global inflation, these factors drive up prices, making recovery an uphill climb.

The top 10 countries in the TTDI’s 2024 edition are the US, Spain, Japan, France, Australia, Germany, the UK, China, Italy and Switzerland.

The Middle East leads in recovery rates for international tourist arrivals, exceeding 2019 levels by 20 percent, while Europe, Africa and the Americas all showed a strong recovery of around 90 percent in 2023.

In the Middle East, Saudi Arabia showed the most improvement in its ranking score between 2019 and 2024 rising from 50th place in 2019 to 41st this year.

The report shows “just how much progress Saudi Arabia has made in its travel and tourism sector,” with “significant investment in infrastructure, cultural and natural attractions, and a noticeable increase in welcoming visitors,” Betti told Arab News. 

The UAE, ranking No. 18 globally, is the top performer across the Middle East and North Africa region, climbing seven spots from 25th in 2019, while Egypt (61st) is the top standalone nation in North Africa.

Home to high-income economies, including all the members of the Gulf Cooperation Council, the Middle East is performing better than North Africa due to improved tourist and transport infrastructure, an advanced aviation sector, the presence of large corporations, and high levels of safety and security. 

The North African economies, on the other hand, are still developing and tend to be more price competitive. The report found that economies such as Egypt, Morocco, Tunisia and Algeria are often challenged due to issues such as gaps in transport and tourism infrastructure, safety and security concerns, and a less-than-ideal business environment. 

The MENA region saw the second-greatest increase in Air Transport Infrastructure scores, up 8.4 percent, with average air route capacity and airport connectivity being among the greatest regional indicator improvements since the 2021 TTDI edition.

As the region looks to diversify beyond oil and gas, many of its economies have pumped substantial investment and resources into developing the travel and tourism sector. This is evident in the development of cultural and tourist attractions, visa policies, and increased government spending on the sector.

Saudi Arabia, for example, plans to spend around $800 billion on tourism over the next decade with the goal of attracting 150 million tourists a year by 2030, with about 70 million coming from abroad.

Moreover, the Kingdom has attracted $13 billion in private sector investments into the tourism industry and is targeting $85 billion in tourism revenue this year compared to $66 billion in 2023, Bloomberg reported. 

Betti said that in order for Saudi Arabia “to further harness the sector for economic growth, it will need to continue improving its positioning as global tourism destination, and focus on building a sustainable, inclusive, and resilient tourism ecosystem,” which means “multiplying the number of visitors while protecting the environment, supporting both small and large businesses, and training its workforce.”

The effect of these efforts is reflected in the greatest regional average increase in travel and tourism socioeconomic impact scores, which have increased by 13.8 percent from 2019 to 2024. 

Still, the region scores the lowest for socioeconomic impact.

Currently, the MENA region is grappling with issues such as lower female participation in the workforce and the resulting gender gap in the industry; below-average workers’ rights and social protections, which limits the talent pool from joining and flourishing in the industry.

The report suggests that, going forward, regional economies should focus on reducing the concentration of tourism at the most visited destinations and creating a competitive workforce in order to prosper.

Further easing travel and trade restrictions, and investing in environmental sustainability, would also help propel the sector in the region.

In the coming years, the industry will be challenged by “the impact of climate change, geopolitical tensions, macroeconomic uncertainty and the application of new digital technologies such as artificial intelligence (AI),” WEF’s Betti and Iis Tussyadiah, professor and head of the school of hospitality and tourism management at the University of Surrey, said in the report. 

“Within this context, it has become critical for T&T (travel and tourism) decision-makers and stakeholders not just to focus on improving sector readiness for future risks and opportunities, but also to ensure that the sector accounts for its economic, social and environmental impact and is a driver of global prosperity,” they added.


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