Europe may be in the throes of a crisis while North America recovers from its own recession, but that hasn't stopped people from traveling -- far from it. Despite concerns over the global economy, tourism has shown incredible resilience as international arrivals are now projected to cross the 1 billion mark for the first time in 2012.
These are the latest estimates from the United Nations World Tourism Organization, or UNWTO, the UN agency responsible for the promotion of sustainable and universally accessible tourism.
"Tourism is one of the few economic sectors in the world growing strongly, driving economic progress in developing and developed countries alike and, most importantly, creating much needed jobs," UNWTO Secretary-General Taleb Rifai said at the opening of the Global Tourism Economy Forum in Macao.
With a record 467 million tourists traveling in the first half of 2012 (22 million more than in the same period in 2011), the agency believes international tourism remains firmly on track to reach 1 billion tourists by the end of the year.
In 2011, international tourist arrivals reached 990 million with receipts from international tourism, including passenger transport, totaling $1.2 trillion, or close to 6 percent of the world's exports of goods and services.
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This year, international arrivals are up in all regions of the world, with Asia and the Pacific region leading the way with 8 percent growth. UNWTO credits the recovery of Japanese inbound and outbound tourism as well as continued strong performance in other major source markets in the region. Destinations in South Asia and Southeast Asia, in particular, showed some of the strongest numbers, with growth exceeding 9 percent.
"Although Asia was affected by the economic crisis of 2008-2009 due to its strong linkages with other economies, the region has bounced back quickly and is today a leader in the global economy. This is clearly reflected in its tourism figures," Rifai said.
Africa, too, posted strong numbers in the first half of 2012, mostly due to the return of travelers to destinations in North Africa and the Middle East, up 11 percent and 0.7 percent respectively. Destinations in Sub-Saharan Africa also showed considerable progress over last year at 6 percent, following similarly positive growth rates over the last decade.
Across the Atlantic, the Americas grew in line with the global average at 5 percent, with Central America (7 percent) and South America (6 percent) leading the way. UNWTO says South America has been one of the sub-regions with the fastest tourism growth, both inbound and outbound, in recent years. The Caribbean, meanwhile, remained buoyant with 5 percent growth, while North America grew at 4 percent, a respectable figure for a mature sub-region.
Europe, the most-visited continent in the world, also grew at 4 percent, consolidating its record growth in 2011 despite concerns over the volatile euro zone. Central and Eastern Europe showed the greatest development in the region at 7 percent, with many destinations posting double-digit growth. Western Europe maintained the global average of 5 percent, while Southern and Mediterranean Europe slowed to 1 percent, partly due to the recovery of destinations in North Africa and the Middle East.
In terms of outbound markets, China and the Russian Federation posted outstanding growth at 30 percent and 15 percent, respectively. On the flipside, growth in outbound travel was comparatively slow or negative in the UK, Italy, France and Australia.
Rifai cautioned that while the 2012 numbers appear auspicious, there's still much work to be done.
"As we lead up to the milestone of 1 billion, we need to ensure that the tourism sector is supported by adequate national policies and that we work to reduce existing barriers to the expansion of the sector, such as complicated visa procedures, increased direct taxation or limited connectivity," he said.
Rifai elaborated that the three big challenges facing travel and tourism in the coming years are convenience in travel, tax income and a higher degree of collaboration across industries.