International Tourism on Track for a Rebound

Despite fragile economic growth in major source markets such as Europe and the U.S., growth returned to international 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.

Prospects have also improved with arrivals now forecast to grow between 3 percent and 4 percent in 2010. This outlook is confirmed by the remarkable rise of the UNWTO Panel of Experts’ Confidence Index, the United Nations group said. Pent-up demand and gains in consumer confidence are cited as reasons for optimism.

The last quarter of 2009 saw growth. International tourist arrivals for business, leisure and other purposes are estimated to have declined worldwide by 4 percent in 2009 to 880 million. This represents a slight improvement on the previous estimate as a result of the 2 percent upswing in the last quarter of 2009. In contrast, international tourist arrivals shrank by 10 percent, 7 percent and 2 percent 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, the UNWTO said.

“The global economic crisis aggravated by the uncertainty around the H1N1 pandemic turned 2009 into one of the toughest years for the tourism sector,” said UNWTO Secretary-General Taleb Rifai. “However, the results of 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, the UNWTO said. Based on the trends through the first three quarters, receipts for 2009 are estimated to have decreased by around 6 percent. “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," Rifai said. "This becomes even more evident when compared with the estimated 12 percent slump in overall exports as a consequence of the global 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.


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 percent and 4 percent6 in 2010. The International Monetary Fund (IMF) has just recently stated that the global recovery is occurring "significantly" faster than expected, as compared with its October assessment which already counted on a clear return of economic growth in 2010 (+3.1 percent worldwide, with stronger performance for emerging economies at +5.1 percent, alongside a more sluggish one for advanced economies at +1.3 percent).

By region, 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 benefiting from the extra boost provided by the 2010 FIFA World Cup in South Africa.

The UNWTO says these improved prospects are confirmed by the encouraging steep rise in the UNWTO Panel of Experts’ Confidence Index for 2010, despite persistent uncertainties regarding the global economy and the operating environment for tourism. The experts who judge prospects for the current year as "better" or "much better than would reasonably be expected" (61 percent) clearly outnumber those rating it as "the same as" (32 percent), or "worse" (7 percent). The average score for 2010 (131), is well above the neutral 100 and close to the level of the boom years 2004-2007.

As a result, 2010 promises to be a "year of transformation," and provides several upside opportunities, while naturally not eliminating downside risks.

Upside Opportunities

*    Business and consumer confidence has picked up
*    Interest rates and inflation remain at historically low levels and are expected to rise only moderately in the short term
*    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 which were hard hit in 2009 such as the Russian Federation or the UK
*    Major international events will take place in South Africa (FIFA World Cup), Canada (Winter Olympics) and China (Shanghai Expo), creating potential extra travel demand
*    The momentum of the spirit of cooperation and partnership bred by the crisis is expected to be maintained by stakeholders
*    The flexibility shown by the tourism sector in dealing with rapid shifts in demand and volatile market conditions has made it stronger
*    Crises provide an opportunity to address underlying structural weaknesses and implement strategies fostering sustainable development and the transformation to the Green Economy.

Downside Risks

*    Unemployment is the key challenge. The jobs crisis is not over yet, particularly in major advanced economies and many valuable human resources are still at risk
*    Economic growth in major source markets, especially in Europe and the U.S., 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
*    Although the overall impact of the influenza A(H1N1) virus was milder until now than anticipated, experience from previous pandemics shows that the situation could once again become challenging
*    Security threats and the potential of increased related hassle and costs for travelers are still a challenge
*    Revenues and yields are expected to recover at a slower pace than travel volumes.

Although prospects have improved, 2010 will still be a demanding year. “Many countries were quick in reacting to the crisis and actively implemented measures to mitigate its impact and stimulate recovery," said Rifai. "Although we expect growth to return in 2010, a premature withdrawal of these stimulus measures and the temptation to impose extra taxes may jeopardize the pace of rebound in tourism. As highlighted in the UNWTO Roadmap for Recovery, the sector can make a vital contribution to economic recovery, particularly as a primary vehicle for job creation and the transformation to the Green Economy. But to do so we need serious global policies that are supportive of tourism.”