International tourist arrivals this decade are growing even faster than first predicted

27 January, 2019

We are bombarded with statistics about the growth of travel and tourism. Despite many global economic tremors - whether natural disasters, political policy, terrorism or economic fragility – nothing seems to be able to stop the propensity for travel. And new data released by the United Nations World Tourism Organization (UNWTO) reveals that the sector is actually growing faster this decade than it had predicted back in 2010.

International tourist arrivals grew an estimated 6% in 2018, totalling 1.4 billion according to the latest UNWTO World Tourism Barometer, consolidating strong 2017 results and proving to be the second strongest year since 2010.

UNWTO’s long term forecast issued in 2010 indicated the 1.4 billion mark would not be reached in 2020, yet the remarkable growth of international arrivals in recent years, buoyed by strong economic growth, more affordable air travel, technological changes, new businesses models and greater visa facilitation, has brought it two years ahead of its predicted schedule.

The growth of tourism in recent years confirms that the sector is today one of the most powerful drivers of economic growth and development. For 2019, UNWTO forecasts a between 3% and 4% increase, much slower than recorded last year, but in line with the historical growth trend. This could see annual levels rise close to 1.5 billion as we enter the next decade.

“It is our responsibility to manage it in a sustainable manner and translate this expansion into real benefits for all countries, and particularly, to all local communities, creating opportunities for jobs and entrepreneurship and leaving no one behind” says UNWTO secretary general, Zurab Pololikashvili.

The strong 2018 performance significantly exceeds the 3.7% growth registered in the global economy. In relative terms, the Middle East (+10%), Africa (+7%), Asia and the Pacific and Europe (both at +6%) led growth in 2018. Arrivals to the Americas were below the world average (+3%). These highlight the continued emergence of new markets and the ongoing maturity of established ones.

The UNWTO data shows:

  • International tourist arrivals in Europe reached 713 million in 2018, a notable 6% increase over an exceptionally strong 2017. Growth was driven by Southern and Mediterranean Europe (+7%), Central and Eastern Europe (+6%) and Western Europe (+6%). Results in Northern Europe were flat due to the weakness of arrivals to the United Kingdom.
  • Asia and the Pacific (+6%) recorded 343 million international tourist arrivals in 2018. Arrivals in South-East Asia grew 7%, followed by North-East Asia (+6%) and South Asia (+5%). Oceania showed more moderate growth at +3%.
  • The Americas (+3%) welcomed 217 million international arrivals in 2018, with mixed results across destinations. Growth was led by North America (+4%), and followed by South America (+3%), while Central America and the Caribbean (both -2%) delivered very different results, the latter reflecting the impact of the September 2017 hurricanes Irma and Maria.
  • Data from Africa points to a 7% increase in 2018 (North Africa at +10% and Sub-Saharan +6%), reaching an estimated 67 million arrivals. The Middle East (+10%) showed solid results last year consolidating its 2017 recovery, with international tourist arrivals reaching 64 million.

Looking forward, UNWTO says stability of fuel prices tends to translate into affordable air travel while air connectivity continues to improve in many destinations, facilitating the diversification of source markets. Trends also show strong outbound travel from emerging markets, especially India and Russia but also from smaller Asian and Arab source markets. But, it warns the global economic slowdown, the uncertainty related to the Brexit, as well as geopolitical and trade tensions may prompt a “wait and see” attitude among investors and travellers.

It predicts 2019 will see consolidation among consumers of emerging trends such as the quest for ‘travel to change and to show’, ‘the pursuit of healthy options’ such as walking, wellness and sports tourism, and ‘multigenerational travel’ as a result of demographic changes and more responsible travel.

“Digitalisation, new business models, more affordable travel and societal changes are expected to continue shaping our sector, so both destination and companies need to adapt if they want to remain competitive”, highlights Mr Pololikashvili.