Numbers alone cannot capture the scope of the losses that have mounted in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic. Data sets are crude tools for plumbing the depth of human suffering, or the immensity of our collective grief.
But numbers can help us comprehend the scale of certain losses — particularly in the travel industry, which in 2020 experienced a staggering collapse.
Around the world, international arrivals are estimated to have dropped to 381 million in 2020, down from 1.461 billion in 2019 — a 74 percent decline. In countries whose economies are heavily reliant on tourism, the precipitous drop in visitors was, and remains, devastating.
According to recent figures from the United Nations World Tourism Organization, the decline in international travel in 2020 resulted in an estimated loss of $1.3 trillion in global export revenues. As the agency notes, this figure is more than 11 times the loss that occurred in 2009 as a result of the global economic crisis.
The following charts — which address changes in international arrivals, emissions, air travel, the cruise industry and car travel — offer a broad overview of the effects of the coronavirus pandemic within the travel industry and beyond.
Before the pandemic, tourism accounted for one out of every 10 jobs around the world. In many places, though, travel plays an even greater role in the local economy.
Consider the Maldives, where in recent years international tourism has accounted for around two-thirds of the country’s G.D.P., when considering direct and indirect contributions.
As lockdowns fell into place worldwide, international arrivals in the Maldives plunged; from April through September of 2020, they were down 97 percent compared to the same period in 2019. Throughout all of 2020, arrivals were down by more than 67 percent compared with 2019. (Arrival numbers slowly improved after the country reopened in July; the government, eager to promote tourism and mitigate losses, lured travelers with marketing campaigns and even courted influencers with paid junkets.)
Similar developments played out in places such as Macau, Aruba and the Bahamas: shutdowns in February and March, followed by incremental increases later in the year.
The economic effect of travel-related declines has been stunning. In Macau, for example, the G.D.P. contracted by more than 50 percent in 2020.
And the effects could be long-lasting; in some areas, travel is not expected to return to pre-pandemic levels until 2024.
The pandemic upended commercial aviation. One way to visualize the effect of lockdowns on air travel is to consider the number of passengers screened on a daily basis at Transportation Security Administration checkpoints.
Traveler screenings plunged in March before hitting a low point on April 14, when 87,534 passengers were screened — a 96 percent decline as compared with the same date in 2019.
Numbers have risen relatively steadily since then, though today the screening figures still sit at less than half of what they were a year earlier.
According to the International Air Transport Association, an airline trade group, global passenger traffic in 2020 fell by 65.9 percent as compared to 2019, the largest year-on-year decline in aviation history.
Another way to visualize the drop-off in air travel last year is to consider the amount of carbon dioxide (CO2) emitted by aircraft around the world.
According to figures from Carbon Monitor, an international initiative that provides estimates of daily CO2 emissions, worldwide emissions from aviation fell by nearly 50 percent last year — to around 500 million metric tons of CO2, down from around 1 billion metric tons in 2019. (Those numbers are expected to rebound, though the timing will depend largely on how long corporate and international travel remain sidelined.)
All told, CO2 emissions from fossil fuels dropped by 2.6 billion metric tons in 2020, a 7 percent reduction from 2019, driven in large part by transportation declines.
Few industries played as central and public a role in the early months of the coronavirus pandemic as did the major cruise lines — beginning with the outbreak aboard the Diamond Princess.
In a scathing rebuke of the industry issued in July, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention blamed cruise companies for widespread transmission of the virus, pointing to 99 outbreaks aboard 123 cruise ships in U.S. waters alone.
While precise passenger data for 2020 is not yet available, the publicly disclosed revenues — which include ticket sales and onboard purchases — from three of the largest cruise lines offer a dramatic narrative: strong revenues in the early months of 2020, followed by a steep decline.
Third-quarter revenues for Carnival Corporation, the industry’s biggest player, showed a year-to-year decline of 99.5 percent — to $31 million in 2020, down from $6.5 billion in 2019.
The outlook remains bleak for the early months of 2021: For now, most cruise lines have canceled all sailings into May or June.
Air travel, both international and domestic, was markedly curtailed by the pandemic. But how was car travel affected?
One way to measure the change is to look at the Daily Travel Index compiled by Arrivalist, a company that uses mobile location data to measure consumer road trips of 50 miles or more in all 50 U.S. states.
The figures tell the story of a rebound that’s slightly stronger than that of air travel: a sharp drop in March and April, as state and local restrictions fell into place, followed by a gradual rise to around 80 percent of 2019 levels.
Another way to consider car travel in 2020 — and domestic travel in the U.S. more broadly — is to look at the visitation numbers for America’s national parks.
Over all, national park visitation decreased by 28 percent in 2020 — to 237 million visitors, down from 327.5 million in 2019, largely because of temporary park closures and pandemic-related capacity restrictions.
The caveat, though, is that several parks saw record numbers of visitors in the second half of the year, as a wave of travel-starved tourists began looking for safe and responsible forms of recreation.
Consider the figures for recreational visits at Yellowstone National Park. After a shutdown in April, monthly visitation at the park quickly rose above 2019 levels. The months of September and October of 2020 were both the busiest on record, with numbers in October surpassing the previous monthly record by 43 percent.
Some national parks located near cities served as convenient recreational escapes throughout the pandemic. At Cuyahoga Valley National Park, 2020 numbers exceeded 2019 numbers from March through December. At Great Smoky Mountains National Park, numbers surged after a 46-day closure in the spring and partial closures through August; between June and December, the park saw one million additional visits compared to the same time period in 2019.