International Tourism Upswing Good News for Industry, World Economy

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International travel is expected to increase by between 4% and 5% this year. (Photo: Pablo Barrios)
International travel is expected to increase by between 4% and 5% this year. (Photo: Pablo Barrios)


  • International tourist arrivals had strongest growth in April at 6%
  • South America, South Asia and Southeast Asia had double-digit growth
  • Slow average growth in North and Central America
  • Middle East and North Africa only regions to see negative growth

The fact that global tourism continues its upward climb is more than just good news for the visitor industry: it is continuing good news for the world economy. “Global tourism continues to consolidate the recovery of 2010 despite the impact of recent developments in the Middle East and North Africa, as well as the tragic events in Japan, which are temporarily affecting travel flows to these regions,” said UNWTO Secretary-General Taleb Rifai.

International tourist arrivals grew by 4.5% in the first four months of 2011, “despite new challenges emerging since the beginning of the year,” said the latest issue of the UNWTO World Tourism Barometer.

Growth was positive in all regions of the world with two exceptions: the Middle East and North Africa.

Double-Digit Growth

Several sub-regions hit double-digit growth: South America was up 17%, while South Asia was up 14% and Southeast Asia was up 10%.

UNWTO predicts areas currently under pressure will see numbers rise again by end of the year. For example, Japan - having faced a natural disaster - is also starting to rebound. “It is time to support those destinations and help their tourism sectors to rebound, contributing to overall economic and social stability and progress,” Rifai added.

From January to April 2011 global destinations welcomed 268 million international tourists, up over the same period last year's number of 256 million.

April Strongest Month for Growth

April saw the highest growth, with an increase of 6%. “This reflects a late Easter holiday and contrasts with the weak April of 2010 when European airspace was closed for nearly a week due to the ash cloud following the eruption of a volcano in Iceland,” according to UNWTO.

Europe was above predictions at 6% growth, logging the highest growth in the first four months of 2011. Not far behind, Asia Pacific was at 5%, slightly under expectations but still in line with the world average. “Asia, and in particular North-East Asia, suffered the impact of the earthquake and tsunami in Japan, which affected both its inbound and outbound travel as well as intra-regional travel from other markets,” the report said.

In the Americas, international tourist arrivals were up 5%, boosted by strong results in South America. North and Central American destinations saw below-average numbers.

Touched negatively by recent developments, the Middle East (down almost 1%) and North Africa (down 11%) did not fall in line with the rest of the world's growth prospects. “Nonetheless, some destinations in the Middle East have shown particularly positive results, such as Saudi Arabia and Dubai (United Arab Emirates), demonstrating the dynamism of the sector in the region,” the report found.

Outlook for The Rest of 2011?

With summer around the corner for some parts of the world, temporary prospects remain positive, the report says. This is reflected in the UNWTO Confidence Index, a short-term outlook based on consultations with over 350 experts worldwide, which remains largely optimistic for the period May-August 2011.

Confidence levels differ globally, with experts in the Americas and Europe anticipating strong numbers. In Africa, confidence is also up but that is not so for Asia Pacific and the Middle East, where industry experts are least optimistic.

“International travel is recovering in a very important way and we expect it to increase by between 4% and 5% this year,” Rifai said during a recent news conference at the UNWTO’s headquarters in Madrid.

That number might be below the 6.7% increase secured last year, but Rifai hailed it as good news, notably held up against the 4% decline in 2009, which he described as “tourism’s worst year in our history.”

Key Statistics - International Tourism (source: UNWTO)

  • International tourist arrivals grew by 4.5% in the first four months of 2011, according to World Tourism Barometer.
  • Some sub-regions achieved double-digit growth: South American was up 17%, while South Asia was up 14%, and Southeast Asia was up 10%.
  • Europe exceeded expectations at six percent more growth and posted the highest growth in the first four months of 2011.

By David Wilkening for
David Wilkening is a former newspaperman who worked in Chicago, Detroit and Orlando. He now specializes in travel and real-estate business writing.

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