Global tourism statistics: international tourism recovering after a difficult 2009

Growth returned to global tourism in the last quarter of 2009 contributing to better than expected full-year results, according to the latest edition of the UNWTO World Tourism Barometer. International tourist arrivals fell by an estimated 4% in 2009. Prospects have also improved with arrivals now forecast to grow between 3% and 4% in 2010.

Although any direct statistical link between medical tourism and other travel is yet unknown, both are driven by economic forces. Spa and wellness tourism are closely linked to holiday travel trends. Suggestions that medical tourism numbers globally fell by 20 to 25% in 2009 are unproven, but it is conceivable that elective medical tourism may be hit harder by recession than other types of tourism.

International tourist arrivals for business, leisure and other purposes declined worldwide by 4% in 2009 to 880 million. This represents a slight improvement on the previous estimate as a result of the 2% upswing in the last quarter of 2009. In contrast, international tourist arrivals shrank by 10%, 7% and 2% in the first three quarters respectively. Asia and the Pacific and the Middle East led the recovery with growth already turning positive in both regions in the second half of 2009.

Taleb Rifai of the World Tourism Organisation (UNWTO) commented, “The global economic crisis aggravated by the uncertainty around the flu pandemic turned 2009 into one of the toughest years for the tourism sector. Recent months suggest that recovery is underway, and even somewhat earlier and at a stronger pace than initially expected.”

Experience shows that tourism earnings generally follow the trend in arrivals quite closely, even if they suffer somewhat more in difficult times. Based on the trends through the first three quarters, receipts for 2009 are estimated to have decreased by around 6%. While this is unquestionably a disappointing result for an industry accustomed to continuous growth, it can also be interpreted as a sign of comparative resilience given the extremely difficult economic environment.

Similarly to the situation in previous crisis, consumers tended to travel closer to home during 2009. Several destinations have seen domestic tourism endure the crisis better and even grow significantly, often with the support of specific government measures aimed at leveraging this trend. This was the case among many other countries, of China, Brazil and Spain, where the domestic market, representing a large share of the total demand, contributed to partially offsetting the decline in international tourism.

Except for Africa, which bucked the global trend, all world regions show negative results in 2009:
• Europe ended 2009 down 6%. Destinations in Central, Eastern and Northern Europe were particularly badly hit, while results in Western, Southern and Mediterranean Europe were relatively better.
• Asia and the Pacific showed an extraordinary rebound with only a 2% drop. While arrivals declined by 7% between January and June, the second half of 2009 saw 3% growth reflecting improved regional economic results and prospects.
• With a drop of 5% in the Americas .the Caribbean returned to growth in the last four months of 2009. The performance was more sluggish elsewhere.
• The Middle East fall of 6% came after high growth levels of previous years, with a positive second half in 2009.
• Africa was a robust performer with a 5% increase.

Against the backdrop of both the upturn in international tourism figures and overall economic indicators in recent months, UNWTO forecasts a growth in international tourist arrivals of between 3% and 4% in 2010. The International Monetary Fund (IMF) has just recently stated that the global recovery is occurring significantly faster than expected. Asia is expected to continue showing the strongest rebound, while Europe and the Americas are likely to recover at a more moderate pace. Growth is expected to return to the Middle East while Africa will continue its positive trend.

Upside opportunities:
• Business and consumer confidence has picked up.
• A slump is generally followed by a rebound due to pent-up demand and destinations are expected to actively leverage this opportunity.
• There is scope for a revival among source markets that were hard hit in 2009 such as the Russian Federation and the UK.

Downside risks:
• Unemployment is the key challenge. The jobs crisis is not over yet, particularly in major advanced economies.
• Economic growth in major source markets of Europe and the USA is still fragile.
• Stimulus measures are likely to be phased out due to increasing public deficits while a number of advanced economies may see increases in taxation, putting extra pressure on household and company budgets.
• Oil prices remain volatile.
• Terrorist and political security threats provide increased related hassle for travellers and will affect some countries badly.
• Revenues are expected to recover at a slower pace than travel volumes.