140 countries ranked on tourism strengths

The World Economic Forum’s biennial study, ‘The Travel and Tourism Competitiveness Report 2019 ‘ ranks 140 countries on their relative strengths in global tourism and travel. Spain holds on to the top spot, followed by France, Germany and Japan, with the USA replacing the UK in the top five. It identifies growing concerns with over-tourism in travel hotspots and warns of an approaching tipping point where increased demand hits unsustainable levels.

The study shows resilient growth in the sector, with scores rising in most countries.

Though travel competitiveness is rising globally, country level analysis shows critical gaps in policy, resources and infrastructure that will be exacerbated by rapid tourism growth if not properly managed.

The 2019 index reveals the sector’s resilience, but warns of an approaching tipping point, where factors such as less expensive travel and fewer tourist barriers increase demand to unsustainable levels. Given that international tourist arrivals surpassed 1.4 billion in 2018, beating predictions by two years, this tipping point may be approaching sooner than expected.

As travel and tourism growth continues to outpace predictions, travel hotspots will start to feel their infrastructure and services under pressure to meet demand. Emerging travel markets will also feel over-tourism pressures as their institutions try to keep up.

The top 10 countries account for over a third of international arrivals, showing a heavy concentration of travel. The top 25% of countries account for over two-thirds of arrivals. This combination of concentration of tourist arrivals and rapid travel growth is putting a strain on travel hotspots.

The report finds travel and tourism competitiveness to be growing around the world. This is important considering the industry contributed over 10% to world GDP and about the same to global employment in 2018. This contribution is expected to rise by 50% in the next decade due to the expanding global middle class, particularly in Asia.

Travel trends by region

With travel barriers and travel costs declining, many countries have been significantly increasing their competitive position in global tourism. Countries can leverage this opportunity to generate economic and development returns, but they must address gaps in infrastructure and environmental protection to make sure these returns can be achieved over the long-term. Regional and country highlights include:

  • UK. Among the top 10 countries, the UK was the only country to fall in the rankings. It now sits below the increasingly competitive United States at spot six, due to a decline in online searches for its natural and cultural resources and a weaker business environment. Aside from the UK-US switch, the top 10 remain the same as the 2017 ranking with Spain, France, and Germany in the lead.
  • Asia-Pacific is one of the fastest-growing travel and tourism regions and continues to increase in importance for the global industry. The region is the biggest source of global outbound tourist spending, with most of it going on intra-regional travel.
  • Japan remains Asia’s most competitive travel and tourism economy, ranking 4th globally, recently witnessing a boom in international tourist arrivals and receipts. China is by far the largest travel and tourism economy in Asia-Pacific.
  • In the Americas the USA, Brazil, Canada and Mexico are the four highest scoring countries in the region and account for most of the region’s tourism industry. Bolivia is showing improvement.
  • Western Europe remains the most competitive sub-region in the world. Spain maintains top place. France also keeps its second place thanks to high cultural resources and business travel ranking. Germany is Western Europe’s largest travel and tourism economy and the third most competitive in the world. Serbia saw the greatest rise in Europe, while the UK fell back
  • The Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region has improved but this region still falls below the global average largely due to lower natural and cultural resources and low international openness. UAE remains the highest scoring country in the region, while Egypt is the region’s most improved country. Saudi Arabia has the largest travel and tourism GDP within the region, but its competitiveness is undermined by a lack of international openness. Other leading countries are Oman, Israel and Qatar.

Africa is the lowest ranking travel and tourism region. Mauritius is the highest-ranking country in the region, largely due to a supportive business environment and, by comparison to its peers, high health and hygiene and international openness scores. The country is followed by South Africa and Seychelles. Yet, despite its lower rankings, Africa is expected to have the second highest growth rate over the next 10 years, potentially bolstering its attractiveness to international investments in travel and tourism. The region has massive potential for nature-based tourism thanks to its relatively underdeveloped, but rich, natural resources. Increasingly important countries are Rwanda and Tanzania.

Over-tourism tipping point

The burden of over-tourism is already being felt by many travel hotspots. Last May, workers at the Louvre Museum in Paris walked out saying that overcrowding was unmanageable and dangerous.

Venice has announced plans to redirect cruise ships away from the city’s central islands, following public discontent. In Spain, there is backlash from residents who feel high levels of tourism disrupt their way of life. Thailand had to recently close its famous Maya Bay cove after a rise in visitors caused extensive ecological damage.

Competitive travel economies might be approaching a tipping point where rising tourism is not met with enough carrying capacity or sufficient management policies. The resulting potential loss of competitiveness puts nations at risk of becoming victims of their own success.

Countries must look beyond their short-term gains from travel and tourism to ensure a positive future for their economies. Travel and tourism can drive economies, but only if policy-makers ensure proper management of their tourism assets, which requires a holistic, multi-stakeholder approach. Without appropriate investment in travel infrastructure and other travel resources, long-term competitiveness may be undermined by bottlenecks.