The number of international tourist arrivals is expected to drop sharply this year due to the novel coronavirus, the World Tourism Organization said Friday, reversing a previous forecast for a substantial increase.

The Madrid-based United Nations body said in a statement that arrivals were now projected to fall by 1.0-3.0 percent in 2020, instead of the growth of 3.0-4.0 percent it forecast in January.

This will lead to an estimated loss of $30-50 billion (29-45 billion euros) in international tourism receipts, the Madrid-based body said.

If confirmed, this will be the first annual decline in the number of international tourist arrivals since 2009 when the global economic crisis hit the travel and tourism sector hard.

"This first assessment expects that Asia and the Pacific will be the worst affected region, with an anticipated fall in arrivals of 9.0 percent to 12.0 percent," the statement said.

"Estimates for other world regions are currently premature in view of the rapidly evolving situation."

The UN body said travel restrictions and flight cancellations had "significantly diminished the supply of travel services while demand continues to retract."

It advised governments against imposing travel restrictions to countries experiencing outbreaks of the deadly disease and called for "financial and political support for recovery measures aimed at tourism".

"Small and medium-sized enterprises make up around 80 percent of the tourism sector and are particularly exposed with millions of livelihoods across the world, including within vulnerable communities, relying on tourism," the body's secretary general, Zurab Pololikashvili, said.

Tourists stand in St. Peter's square at the Vatican on March 6, 2020
Tourists stand in St. Peter's square at the Vatican on March 6, 2020 AFP / Vincenzo PINTO

International tourism arrivals rose by 4.0 percent in 2019 to 1.5 billion, with France the world's most visited nation, followed by Spain and the United States. They generated around $1.5 trillion in receipts.

China, the world's top source market for international tourists, has imposed draconian quarantines and travel restrictions to keep large swathes of the population indoors to try to stop the spread of the disease.

The destinations which will be most affected by a drop in the arrival of Chinese tourists will likely be the United States, Thailand and Japan, according to the UN body.

Chinese tourists accounted for over a quarter of all international arrivals in Thailand and Japan last year and about four percent of all arrivals in the United States, it added.

Travel and tourism accounts for about 10 percent of total world employment, according to the World Travel and Tourism Council (WTTC), a top industry association.

Leisure represents almost 80 percent of that total compared with 20 percent for business travel.

Many business travellers who normally fill the travel industry's slack during the winter months are staying home since companies have suspended employee travel globally for the coming weeks and authorities have axed trade fairs.

The UNWTO pointed out that while the travel sector also declined in 2003 due to the outbreak of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) which killed 774 people worldwide, it experienced a "strong and rapid recovery the following years".

The novel coronavirus strain that erupted in China this year and causes the COVID-19 disease has killed more than 3,400 people and infected over 100,000 in about 90 nations.