The global travel industry courageously navigated the pandemic’s severe ramifications and continues to demonstrate tremendous resilience post-Covid-19. It’s been nearly four years since the pandemic was declared in March 2020, swiftly followed by travel bans and restrictions and an inevitable reduced consumer appetite for travel. The long road to recovery continued throughout 2023.
According to some experts, the industry won’t fully recover until 2024 or later. Despite this, 2023 was a strong year for international travel. According to data from the UN World Tourism Organization (UNWTO), international arrivals reached 85 per cent of pre-pandemic levels in the second quarter of 2023, and 90 per cent in July. “International arrivals are higher than 2022 in all regions across the world and we expect this trend to continue in 2024, with many regions surpassing 2019 levels by the end of [the] year,” confirmed Virginia Messina, Senior Vice President, Advocacy and Communications at the World Travel & Tourism Council (WTTC).
Signs point to continued growth in 2024 and the opportunity for pre-pandemic focus areas to come back into the spotlight for the industry. A spokesperson for UK travel agents’ association ABTA told ITIJ: “It is likely that international travel will continue to grow in 2024, with passenger numbers achieving or surpassing pre-pandemic levels. In the UK, many travel companies are already reporting record numbers for 2023 and healthy interest in forward booking for 2024.”
The reparative power of technology
For many, accelerating digital transformation became a priority during the pandemic, with innovations such as QR scanning, biometric facial recognition and thermal scanning technologies replacing manual processes. This focus continued in 2023 with, for many, technology playing a key role in recovery and being seen as paramount to enhancing global travel.
William Raillant-Clark, Communications Officer, Office of the Secretary General, International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO), told ITIJ: “Much of the operational rethink and technological innovations resulting from the Covid-19 pandemic will change and improve the travel experience, for example in the area of facilitation, with the use and implementation of biometric identity technologies taking great steps forward.”
Looking ahead throughout 2024, it is anticipated that technology will continue to be a key driver for change and innovation in travel and tourism. “Digital transformation, artificial intelligence (AI), and data analytics will continue to reshape the sector,” stated Messina. “We expect the widespread adoption of virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR) for immersive travel experiences, allowing travellers to explore destinations from the comfort of their homes before making decisions.”
International arrivals are higher than 2022 in all regions across the world and we expect this trend to continue in 2024, with many regions surpassing 2019 levels by the end of the year
ITIJ also spoke with Roi Ariel, General Manager, Global Sustainable Tourism Council (GSTC), who agreed that advancements in technology will be a catalyst for change: “Particularly in the simplification of processes through the utilisation of AI and data analytics. As technology continues to evolve, it will reshape how we plan, book and experience travel, and hopefully enhance the overall sustainability in the industry,” he said.
A decarbonisation revolution
Sustainability is another current and future focus for the international travel community, and is closely related to innovation, with important targets such as decarbonisation hinging on disruptive technologies, such as zero-emission aircraft and novel sustainable aviation fuel (SAF) technologies.
“Long-term sustainability is a vital element in any medium-term business plan, and aviation is no exception,” highlighted Raillant- Clark. “Moreover, governments have agreed to work towards the total decarbonisation of flying by 2050. The global air transport sector welcomes these developments as they provide certainty and vision. Sustainability is not seen as a threat but as an opportunity for new and highly dynamic development, and the technological and operational rethink that decarbonisation requires also presents an opportunity to deeply revolutionise operations as we know them today.”
Digital transformation, artificial intelligence (AI), and data analytics will continue to reshape the sector
Ariel underlined that sustainability will play a pivotal role in the recovery of international tourism and is a shared and crucial factor that is rising higher and higher on stakeholders’ agendas. “Travellers and stakeholders increasingly prioritise sustainable and responsible tourism practices. Embracing sustainability is not just a trend; it’s becoming a fundamental factor that will shape the future of the travel industry,” he said.
Consumers are demanding sustainable travel products, with 81 per cent of respondents to a Booking.com survey saying that sustainable travel is important to them, while, according to Simon-Kucher’s Global Travel Trends Study 2023 report, almost one in three consumers are willing to pay more for sustainable options. This consumer commitment, in tandem with the global race to decarbonise the travel and tourism sector and achieve net zero by 2050, means that initiatives to boost sustainability are more important than ever.
“Businesses are expected to intensify sustainability initiatives and look for ways to further reduce carbon footprints,” stated Catherine Logan, Regional Senior Vice President – EMEA and APAC, Global Business Travel Association (GBTA). “Business travel is an obvious focus area. Protecting the planet is one of the biggest challenges the global business travel sector faces, like so many other industries around the world. Reducing carbon emissions must be part of our collective mission. In our latest poll, 37 per cent of respondents put sustainability as a top strategic priority and 45 per cent of respondents plan to invest in sustainability initiatives in the year ahead.”
Sustainable tourism is not just a catchphrase
In addition to embracing eco-friendly practices and harnessing innovation for sustainability, the importance of environmental conservation and responsible tourism can’t be overstated. “Sustainability must be viewed holistically, not just our impact on the environment but ensuring that local people benefit from tourism and that those employed in the industry are paid a decent wage,” an ABTA spokesperson highlighted. Interest among consumers in sustainable accommodation is increasing, with travellers recognising the importance of selecting a responsible hotel brand or opting to stay in sustainable accommodation in order to help reduce their environmental impact.
“The Singapore Tourism Board announced the launch of the Hotel Sustainability Roadmap,” said Ariel. “By 2025 its goal is for 60 per cent of hotel room stock to achieve hotel sustainability certification through a GSTC-accredited certification body.
Embracing sustainability is not just a trend; it’s becoming a fundamental factor that will shape the future of the travel industry
“We are witnessing a significant shift towards a better understanding, adoption and demand for sustainable tourism practices. Sustainable tourism has already become a mainstream term, and now it’s time to apply this term in a proper manner and not just as a catchphrase.”
The benefits of these practices will extend far and wide, said Messina: “As travellers become increasingly conscious of their impact on the environment and local communities, the sector’s commitment to sustainability will not only benefit the planet but also provide authentic and meaningful travel experiences and ensure these have a positive impact.”
Recovery isn’t linear
Considering possible roadblocks for 2024 and beyond, Ariel said that the biggest challenge for the future of international travel will be achieving a sustainable balance between tourism growth and conservation, while also addressing issues related to overtourism and eliminating any negative environmental, cultural or social impacts from tourism activities. “While the trajectory is positive, continuous effort, innovation and commitment from the travel and tourism industry as a whole are essential to ensure that tourism benefits both the planet and its inhabitants for generations to come,” he stated.
Raillant-Clark said that a big challenge will be addressing the decarbonisation of air transport. “This will call for cooperation within and beyond the aviation sector at unprecedented levels,” he said. “This will require states to recommit to multilateralism at a time when many signposts appear to be very unfortunately pointing in the opposite direction.”
Messina agreed: “According to our data, 40 per cent of our sector’s greenhouse gas (GHG) footprint comes from transport. If we are to reach our net zero targets as a sector, it is therefore critical that we decarbonise transport but, of course, transport is considered a hard-to-abate sector due to its dependence on fossil fuels. In the case of aviation, the solution most widely being touted is SAF, but this will require governments around the world to rapidly pick up the pace in incentivising SAF production and to set ambitious targets to produce adequate quantities.”
Ariel has seen multi-stakeholder collaboration leading to meaningful change: “We see that tourism stakeholders, including governments, local communities and industry leaders, are collaborating to create policies and infrastructure that support sustainability.” It is only with this collective effort and passion that meaningful change can be achieved.
Tourism stakeholders, including governments, local communities, and industry leaders, are collaborating to create policies and infrastructure that support sustainability
It was perhaps inevitable that the travel industry would recover from the unprecedented strain placed upon it by the pandemic but healing isn’t linear and we can likely expect more bumps in the road in 2024. “The fact that travel patterns have resumed in tandem with the lifting of restrictions is proof of the continued social and universal importance of travel generally, with air transport being no exception,” said Raillant-Clark.
As the shadow cast by the pandemic continues to lift, pre-pandemic priorities can come back into focus, with socially, economically and environmentally responsible models of tourism representing a shared interest and technological transformation reshaping the sector. The global travel industry has experienced a real resurgence in 2023 and it will be interesting to see what 2024 brings.