Skift Recovery Index: September 2021 Highlights


This report highlights the latest insights from the Skift Recovery Index. The index covers travel’s performance since January 2020, up to and including September 2021.

The Skift Recovery Index is a real-time measure of where the travel industry at large — and the core verticals within it — stands in recovering from the COVID-19 pandemic. It provides the travel industry with a powerful tool for strategic planning, of utmost importance in this uncertain business climate.

We work with Amadeus, Aviasales, Beyond, Cendyn, Collinson, Criteo, Duetto, ForwardKeys, Hotelbeds, Key Data Dashboard, OAG, Onyx CenterSource, RateGain, Shiji Group, SimilarWeb, Skyscanner, Sojern, Transparent, and TrustYou as data partners to provide you with a monthly update of travel performance in 22 countries around the world.

Focus on Dubai Expo

On October 1st, the World Expo started in Dubai, in what is likely the largest tourism-oriented event since the start of the pandemic. In this Highlights report we will take a look at the tourism performance and prospects for Dubai, using additional data from our partners. In addition, we will have  a short analysis of our global Recovery Index, with the regular graphs you’ve become accustomed to. 

Index Improves in September After Disappointing August

The Skift Recovery Index registered a reversal of the downward trend seen in August, with the overall global index score increasing by 3 percentage points to 62 in September. As we discussed last month, the decline could be attributed mostly to the poor performance of major tourism economies like the U.S. and China. In September, these two countries saw much better performance, which helped to push the overall index back into the black.

Many countries in Asia Pacific have performed well, as countries are accelerating their plans to open up, although these improvements are coming from very low baselines. 

Yet the upward trend is not shared equally across all regions. What stands out from the September data is that, with the exception of Turkey and the UK, all European countries are seeing a decline in their performance again. After a few summer months with very strong growth, it appears that demand during the shoulder season remains below the pre-pandemic ‘normal.’ We saw a similar phenomenon in 2020, with 2021 data following a similar trajectory.

Dubai Hopes Expo Will Rejuvenate Travel

On September 30, the United Arab Emirates launched the Dubai Expo with a glitzy opening ceremony. The event which was originally set to take place between October 2020 and April 2021, was delayed due to the Covid pandemic and will now run from October 1 until March 31, 2022. 

World Expos are held every five years, and in terms of magnitude are compared to Olympic Games. The impact on host cities can be huge, especially in terms of tourism, construction and real estate, and investments. It was predicted that the Expo could provide a $33 billion boost to UAE’s economy in roughly 20 years (between the winning bid which was announced in 2013 and ten years after the event in 2031), with $6 billion coming directly from spending on hotels and business services during the six months the Expo is running, but this was before Covid hit.    

Covid might have downgraded some expectations, although the organizers are still aiming for 25 million visits during the six month exhibition. In a country of less than 10 million inhabitants, this would require a significant volume of international travelers. The organizers predict 11 million domestic visitors (on 10 million inhabitants this seems steep), and 14 million international visitors. According to MasterCard’s Global Cities Index, Dubai attracted 15.9 million international visitors in all of 2018, and the country would need to achieve similar (if not higher) numbers in just six months to hit its Expo visitor targets. With many travel restrictions still in place, this currently seems very unlikely. 

The top source markets for Dubai include India (12% of all international visitors), Saudi Arabia (9%), the United Kingdom (7%), and China (6%). The draw of the UAE to British travelers became clear when the UK government removed the UAE from its red list in early August, with data from ForwardKeys showing that bookings went from less than 10% of 2019 levels to almost 80% in a matter of weeks. By mid-September, flight bookings from the UK to the UAE were above pre-pandemic levels.    

Also in hotels, the UAE — and Dubai specifically — has shown relative resilience. According to data from STR, average occupancy rates between January and July 2021 were 61% in Dubai hotels, higher than London and Paris. This remains below pre-pandemic levels though. In August, average occupancy rates in Dubai hotels were 9.5 percentage points lower than August 2019, at 58.4%. RevPAR also was about 16% below 2019 levels, at AED218 ($59).    

Taking all this into consideration, the UAE has shown great improvement over the last couple of months in the Skift Recovery Index, with travel performance hitting 77% of pre-pandemic levels in September, a jump of 8 percentage points compared to last month.    

This improvement of travel’s performance goes hand-in-hand with a strong decrease in Covid cases in the country. Daily new cases are currently at the lowest level since August 2020, having shown a consistent downward trend since June. As of the end of September 2021, 82% of the population has been fully vaccinated, one of the highest rates globally. 

The question is of course what the coming months will bring. We have asked a number of our data partners to provide forward looking data for the UAE, or Dubai specifically if available, to examine the strength of its travel market as it sets off on an important six months.   

What we concluded is that the success of the event remains largely unknown, because booking windows remain short, and some additional barriers due to Covid remain in place. It is hard to draw any strong conclusions from the data at present, but we are seeing some interesting boosts in performance, which we share below. 

As the Expo Starts, Interest Finally Kickstarts

Using Google Trends data, we can see that interest in the Expo has been relatively low in the buildup to the event. But now that it has started, there has been a significant increase in Google searches for information about the event. This will hopefully convert into bookings and visits. 

The UAE has made visiting the country a lot easier in the years preceding the pandemic, with international visitors from major source markets like the EU, the U.S. and China able to get a visa upon arrival. There is still a requirement for all international arrivals to have a valid PCR test certificate, but otherwise there are no further restrictions to most travelers. 

Short Booking Windows for Hotels Remain

According to data from revenue management system Duetto, Dubai hotels have seen a strong uptick in hotel bookings for the period of the Expo, but as with search trends, this has only recently started to pick up. Due to uncertainty about border openings and travel restrictions, we have seen much shorter booking windows during the pandemic, and this data confirms that this is still the case, even in the case of a major event like the Expo.

What is interesting, though, is that this uptick in demand is finally allowing hotels to increase their Average Daily Room Rates. Data from RateGain’s new Demand.AI platform shows that hotels have been able to increase prices considerably for the rest of the year. While the average room rate was AED312 on the first day of October 2020, this was AED468 (+50%) on the same day in 2021. And prices for the remainder of 2021 remain consistently over 50% higher than in 2020. 

Vacation Rentals Beat Pre-Pandemic Performance  

Vacation rentals are also seeing a strong uptick in demand. Data from Beyond shows that the volume of rental bookings is currently higher than it has been at any time during 2020 or 2019. At the start of October, rental bookings were 52% higher than in October 2019.  

Beyond data also shows that occupancy rates in Dubai vacation rentals are higher than in 2020 and 2021, which is further supported by data from Transparent. Occupancy rates have been almost consistently higher in 2021 than in 2019, highlighting the increased popularity of rentals during the pandemic, but there is a clear uptick in occupancy starting in week 36 (w/c September 6). During the first week of October, average occupancy stood at 51%, 10 percentage points higher than the same week in 2019.

And we can look at future pricing data from RateGain again to see that vacation rental rates have seen a strong boost that coincides with the start of the Expo. 

Air Travel Showing Signs of Recovery 

The above proves that the Expo has had a positive impact on booking levels and pricing power for operators on the ground. However, with evidence that the booking window remains short, it is hard to estimate whether the Expo will attract anywhere near the 25 million visitor target. 

OAG data on seat capacity for the main airports does show a major uptick in flights for the remainder of the year, and this capacity can of course be further upgraded if demand appears strong. A total of 27 million seats are scheduled to fly into Dubai International Airport during the whole of 2021, with a clear uptick in the coming months. A total of 10 million seats are scheduled for October to December.   

Furthermore, flight booking data from Skyscanner for flights from the UK (one of the major source markets for the UAE) shows strong spikes in bookings for flights in October and December. While this can be partially attributed to the Expo, the high spikes can also be explained by other events. 

On October 17, the T20 Cricket World Cup starts in the UAE and Oman, with Dubai a major venue for matches. Dubai also always sees a major spike in performance during the Christmas period, which could also explain the increased seat capacity towards the end of the year. 

The Expo will, of course, benefit from a successful Cricket World Cup and a strong Christmas period, with many visitors to these events potentially also visiting the Expo. A combination of these different events will clearly increase the draw of the UAE and Dubai for international travelers. 

As long as Covid cases stay low, it can be expected that the UAE is at the start of a strong few months. Does it really matter, then, whether it’s the Expo or some other event that draws people in? Not to the local tourism operators it won’t!

Data Partners

We would like to thank the following partners who are collaborating with Skift Research by providing their data which shapes the Skift Recovery Index.

Amadeus is a global travel technology leader that delivers the most trusted, critical systems across the travel industry to airlines, airports, hotels, travel agents, and car rental and railway providers. Amadeus is providing insight on travel search trends and behavior for the Skift Recovery Index.

Aviasales was launched as a blog on bargain air tickets in 2007 and grew out to become the world’s biggest independent travel search. Aviasales serves 20 million monthly active users from Eastern Europe & Central Asia, and provides flight and hotel booking data for Russian travelers for the index.

Beyond is a leading revenue management platform for short-term rental owners and managers to get, grow, and keep revenue. The easy-to-use platform includes a dynamic, demand-driven pricing tool with extensive market data that pairs with OTA distribution and a best-in-class booking engine. Beyond has supported over 340,000 properties in more than 7,500 cities worldwide and have enabled billions of dollars in booking revenue. The company provides data on Revenue per Available Night (RevPAN) for the index.

Cendyn’s software solutions drive sales, marketing, and revenue performance for tens of thousands of hotels across the globe with a focus on integrated hotel CRM, hotel sales, and revenue strategy technology platforms. The company provides data on hotel email campaigns for the index.

Collinson is a global travel services business, creating traveler experiences, loyalty strategy and programs, travel insurance, and travel and medical assistance. Priority Pass is operated by Collinson and provides frequent travelers access to over 1,300 lounges, with Collinson providing aggregated customer lounge visit data for the index.

Criteo is a global technology company powering the world’s marketers with trusted and impactful advertising. The company provides indexed data from various OTA, airline, and car rental partners. Criteo provides data for airline and car rental web traffic and sales.

Duetto delivers a suite of cloud applications to simplify hospitality revenue decisions and allow hoteliers to work smarter, increasing organizational efficiency, revenue, and profitability. More than 4,000 hotel and casino resort properties in more than 60 countries have partnered to use Duetto’s applications. Duetto provides hotel bookings and cancellations data.

ForwardKeys analyzes more than 17 million flight booking transactions each day, drawing data from all the major global air reservation systems, and selected airlines and tour operators. ForwardKeys is providing flight booking and passenger volumes data.

Hotelbeds provides over 180,000 hotels across the globe with access to high-value, complementary distribution channels that do not compete with the hotelier’s direct distribution strategy. The company provides data on hotel bookings and source market performance.

Key Data Dashboard is a provider of real-time, direct-source vacation rental data for the short-term rental sector, aggregating data sourced directly from more than 30+ reservation systems of 700+ professional property managers around the world. Key Data provides bookings, RevPAR and cancellations data for the Skift Recovery Index.

OAG collects and analyzes data about every journey, every booking, every take-off and landing, departure, and delay, totalling over 110,000 flights, 100,000 schedule changes daily and over 4 million flight status updates. OAG provides flight capacity data for the Skift Recovery Index.

Onyx CenterSource is a leading global provider of business-to-business payments and business intelligence solutions to the hospitality industry. With a legacy dating to 1992, the company facilitates in excess of $2.1 billion in payments annually, and partners with more than 150,000 hotel properties. The company provides hotel stay, cancellations, and commission data.

RateGain helps travel and hospitality companies with cognitive revenue management, smart e-distribution, and brand engagement. RateGain supports over 250,000 hotel properties globally by providing 240 billion rate and availability updates, and powering over 30 million bookings. For the Index, RateGain provides hotel bookings and cancellation data.

Shiji Group provides software solutions and services for the hospitality, food service, retail, and entertainment industries, serving over 74,000 hotels, 200,000 restaurants and 600,000 retail outlets across the world. Shiji Group provides China hotel bookings and room night data for the Skift Recovery Index.

SimilarWeb gathers digital data from multiple sources, including first-party direct measurement, public data sources, anonymous behavioral data, and external partners. For the Index, SimilarWeb provides unique visitor data to the top 10 travel websites per country.

Skyscanner has 100 million peak monthly active users, over 100 million app downloads, and more than 1,200 partners across flights, hotels, car rental, and more. Skyscanner’s Travel Insight product helps companies guide their COVID-19 recovery plans, and the company contributes flight search data from Travel Insight for the Skift Recovery Index.

Sojern provides digital marketing solutions for the travel industry, helping to drive direct demand for more than 10,000 hotels, attractions, tourism boards, and travel marketers. Sojern contributes flight and hotel search data for the Skift Recovery Index.

Transparent provides business intelligence serving the vacation rental industry, including insights around supply growth, demand patterns, rate changes, and property manager activities. Transparent contributes occupancy and bookings data for the Skift Recovery Index. The company draws on data from the 34 million vacation rental listings they track worldwide, in every geography.

TrustYou provides a guest feedback platform that makes listening to customers easy, powerful, and actionable. In response to the current crisis, TrustYou has put together a Travel Health Index, using hotel reviews managed through its platform as a proxy for hotel occupancy. TrustYou’s Travel Health Index is integrated in the Skift Recovery Index.

Data Tables