Travel brands take note: The oft-overlooked youth segment has emerged over the past five years as the fastest-growing group for international travel, representing roughly 20 percent of the total market in 2012, according to a new report from the World Youth Student and Educational Travel Confederation.

The global nonprofit travel trade association surveyed more than 34,000 young travelers from 137 countries for its New Horizons III study and found a whopping 40 percent rise in youth spending between 2007 and 2012. Such growth vastly outstripped that of other international travelers, whose spending rose by just 3 percent over the same period, and meant that some $217 billion of the $1.09 trillion tourism dollars spent worldwide last year came from young travelers.

David Chapman, director general of the World Youth Student and Educational Travel Confederation, said the research showed that the nature of youth travel had “changed enormously” over the past decade. “Young travelers today want, more than ever, to enrich themselves with cultural experiences, to meet local people and to improve their employment when they return home.”

An increasingly diverse demographic of young globetrotters, Chapman added, put far more emphasis on gaining cultural, educational and work experiences abroad than they do on simply traveling for leisure.

“With young people traveling further, staying away for longer, spending more, keeping in touch more and integrating with overseas communities on a scale not seen before, the industry is becoming far broader than ever before,” he said. “The research provides an invaluable insight into this ever expanding market and will be a valuable resource for organizations to help understand their market and adapt to meet their needs.”

Roughly 22 percent of respondents in the New Horizons III study said they wanted to travel to learn a language, while 15 percent traveled to gain work experience and another 15 percent traveled to study. All of these figures are up significantly from 2007, thanks to major growth in emerging markets such as China, Brazil and Russia.

The U.N. World Tourism Organization expects nearly 300 million international youth trips per year by 2020, and the study argues that companies will loose out on a major opportunity for future growth if they don’t act soon to tap into the market. Among other findings, researchers said that youth are at the cutting edge of new technology, are frequently the pioneers who discover new destinations, often stay longer than other tourists, and are less scared by civil unrest, disease or natural disasters. Moreover, by capturing a traveler at a young age, the youth travel confederation believes many will return over their lifetime, giving more value to a destination.

The nonprofit group defined the youth segment as travelers between the ages of 18 and 35, while it divided respondents almost equally between those from the West and those from emerging countries in Asia and Latin America. The survey’s release coincided with the 22nd annual World Youth and Student Travel Conference in Sydney, which brought together delegates from more than 120 countries for a four-day event.