International tourist arrivals grew by over four per cent in 2011 to 980 million, according to the latest UNWTO World Tourism Barometer.
With growth expected to continue in 2012, at a somewhat slower rate, international tourist arrivals are on track to reach the milestone one billion mark later this year.
International tourist arrivals grew by 4.4 per cent in 2011 to a total 980 million, up from 939 million in 2010, in a year characterised by a stalled global economic recovery, major political changes in the Middle East and North Africa and natural disasters in Japan.
By region, Europe (up six per cent) was the best performer, while by sub-region South-America (up ten per cent) topped the ranking.
Contrary to previous years, growth was higher in advanced economies (up five per cent) than in emerging ones (up 3.8 per cent), due largely to the strong results in Europe, and the setbacks in the Middle East and North Africa.
“International tourism hit new records in 2011 despite the challenging conditions,” said UNWTO secretary-general, Taleb Rifai.
“For a sector directly responsible for five per cent of the world’s GDP, six per cent of total exports and employing one out of every 12 people in advanced and emerging economies alike these results are encouraging, coming as they do at a time in which we urgently need levers to stimulate growth and job creation,” he added.
Europe surpasses the half billion mark in 2011
Despite persistent economic uncertainty, tourist arrivals to Europe reached 503 million in 2011, accounting for 28 million of the 41 million additional international arrivals recorded worldwide.
Central and Eastern Europe and Southern Mediterranean destinations (up eight per cent each) experienced the best results.
Although part of the growth in Southern Mediterranean Europe resulted from a shift in traffic away from the Middle East and North Africa, destinations in the Mediterranean also profited from improved outbound flows from markets such as Scandinavia, Germany and the Russian Federation.
Asia and the Pacific (up six per cent) was up 11 million arrivals in 2011, reaching a total 216 million international tourists.
South Asia and South-East Asia (both up night per cent) benefited from strong intraregional demand, while growth was comparatively weaker in North-East Asia (up four per cent) and Oceania (up 0.3 per cent), partly due to the temporary decline in the Japanese outbound market.
The Americas (up four per cent) saw an increase of six million arrivals, reaching 156 million in total.
South America, up by ten per cent for the second consecutive year, continued to lead growth.
Central America and the Caribbean (both up four per cent) maintained the growth rates of 2010.
North America, with a three per cent increase, hit the 100 million tourists mark in 2011.
Africa maintained international arrivals at 50 million, as the gain of two million by Sub-Saharan destinations (up seven per cent) was offset by the losses in North Africa (down 12 per cent).
The Middle East (down eight per cent) lost an estimated five million international tourist arrivals, totalling 55 million.
Nevertheless, some destinations such as Saudi Arabia, Oman and the United Arab Emirates sustained steady growth.
Receipts confirm positive trend in arrivals
Available data on international tourism receipts and expenditure for 2011 closely follows the positive trend in arrivals.
Among the top ten tourist destinations, receipts were up significantly in the USA (up 12 per cent), Spain (up nine per cent), Hong Kong (China) (up by a quarter) and the UK (up seven per cent).
The top spenders were led by emerging source markets – China (up 38 per cent), Russia (up 21 per cent), Brazil (up 32 per cent) and India (up 32 per cent) – followed by traditional markets, with the growth in expenditure of travellers from Germany (up four per cent) and the USA (up five per cent) above the levels of previous years.
International tourism on course to hit one billion in 2012
UNWTO forecasts international tourism to continue growing in 2012 although at a slower rate.
Arrivals are expected to increase by three per cent to four per cent, reaching the historic one billion mark by the end of the year.
Emerging economies will regain the lead with stronger growth in Asia and the Pacific and Africa (four per cent to six per cent), followed by the Americas and Europe (two per cent to four per cent).
The Middle East (zero to five per cent) is forecast to start to recover part of its losses from 2011.
These prospects are confirmed by the UNWTO Confidence Index.
The 400 UNWTO Panel of Experts from around the globe, expects the tourism sector to perform positively in 2012, though somewhat weaker than last year.
Governments urged to facilitate travel
As destinations worldwide look to stimulate travel demand under pressing economic conditions, UNWTO is urging governments to consider advancing travel facilitation, an area in which in spite of the great strides made so far there is still much room for progress.
UNWTO advises countries to make the most of information and communication technologies in improving visa application and processing formalities, as well as the timings of visa issuance, and to analyze the possible impact of travel facilitation in increasing their tourism economies.
“Travel facilitation is closely interlinked with tourism development and can be key in boosting demand.
“This area is of particular relevance in a moment in which governments are looking to stimulate economic growth but cannot make major use of fiscal incentives or public investment,” concluded Rifai.