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Over-Tourism Concern Looms as Policy, Resources and Infrastructure Stretched by Rapid Travel Growth

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Today, the World Economic Forum releases its latest Travel and Tourism Competitiveness Report (TTCR), ranking 140 countries on their relative strengths in global tourism and travel.

Marking over a decade of travel and tourism benchmarking by the Forum, the 2019 index reveals the sector’s resilience, but warns of an approaching ‘tipping point’, where factors such as less expensive travel and fewer tourist barriers increase demand to unsustainable levels. Given that international tourist arrivals surpassed 1.4 billion in 2018, beating predictions by two years, this tipping point may be approaching sooner than expected.

As travel and tourism growth continues to outpace predictions, travel hotspots will start to feel their infrastructure and services under pressure to meet demand. Furthermore, emerging travel markets will also feel over-tourism pressures as their institutions try to keep up.

The top 10 TTCR scoring countries account for over a third of international arrivals, showing a heavy concentration of travel today. The top 25% of countries account for over two-thirds of arrivals. This combination of concentration of tourist arrivals and rapid travel growth is putting a strain on travel hotspots, despite relatively high infrastructure and travel services scores.

Travel and tourism competitiveness in 2019

The report finds travel and tourism competitiveness to be growing around the world. This is important considering the industry contributed over 10% to world GDP and about the same to global employment in 2018, according to the World Travel and Tourism Council. This contribution is expected to rise by almost 50% in the next decade due to the expanding global middle class, particularly in Asia.

Among the top 10 countries, the UK was the only country to fall in the rankings. It now sits under the increasingly competitive United States at spot six, thanks to a decline in online searches for its natural and cultural resources and a weaker business environment. Aside from the UK-US switch, the top 10 remain the same as the 2017 ranking with Spain, France, and Germany in the lead.

“With travel barriers and travel costs declining, many countries have been significantly increasing their competitive position in global tourism,” said Christoph Wolff, Head of Mobility at the World Economic Forum. “Countries can leverage this opportunity to generate economic and development returns, but they must address gaps in infrastructure and environmental protection to make sure these returns can be achieved over the long-term.“

A link between overall economic versus travel and tourism competitiveness was also explored. The average score for more productive high-income countries was about 38% higher than the average score for low- to lower-middle-income countries. The report suggests that lower-income countries with similar levels of natural resources as higher-income countries can use their natural assets to drive broader economic development through direct investments and related policy vehicles in travel and tourism.

Representing 98% of global travel and tourism GDP, the 140 economies are ranked in four sub-indexes: enabling environment; travel and tourism policy and enabling conditions; infrastructure; and natural and cultural resources. Together, these four sub-indexes include a total of 14 pillars which are used to score a country’s overall travel and tourism competitiveness.

Regional and country highlights

Asia-Pacific

Asia-Pacific, which is one of the fastest-growing travel and tourism regions in this year’s ranking, continues to increase in importance for the global industry. Moreover, the region is the biggest source of global outbound tourist spending, with most of it going on intra-regional travel.

Japan (4, +0) remains Asia’s most competitive travel and tourism economy, ranking 4th globally, recently witnessing a boom in international tourist arrivals and receipts (ranking 12th and 9th respectively). China (13, +2) is by far the largest travel and tourism economy in Asia-Pacific and 13th most competitive globally (up two spots). The Philippines (75, +4) has shown improvement, moving up four places to rank 75 globally.

Eastern Asia-Pacific is the most competitive sub-region and the second most competitive in the world for travel and tourism based on the TTCR. South-East Asia outscores the global average in overall competitiveness. South Asia is the only sub-region in Asia-Pacific to score below the global average for travel and tourism competitiveness, but also experienced the greatest percentage improvement in score.

The Americas

The Americas improved on competitiveness since the last edition of the report, coming in above the global average, largely due to strong natural and cultural resources and travel and tourism policy-enabling conditions. The United States (5, +1), Brazil (32, -5), Canada (9, +0) and Mexico (19, +3) make up the four highest scoring countries in the region and account for most of the region’s tourism industry.

The United States (5, +1) is the top scorer in the Americas, moving up one place to rank fifth globally. The country’s large economy and high competitiveness helps give the US the largest travel and tourism GDP in the world, accounting for over 20% of the global total. Driving this are high levels of natural and cultural resources, which also separate it from many other developed nations in the ranking. Despite these high marks, the country still ranks low in overall environmental sustainability (100) and price competitiveness (119).

Bolivia (90, +9) is the most improved country in the Americas, moving up nine places to rank 90th globally.

In particular, the country improved its price competitiveness (109th to 61st) by lowering ticket taxes and airport charges and upped its international openness (88th to 72nd) by reducing visa requirements. Brazil is South America’s highest scoring country and its largest travel and tourism economy. The nation relies on its exceptional natural (2) and cultural (9) resources to attract visitors, especially given its less impressive performance in other areas of travel and tourism competitiveness.

Sub-regionally, North and Central America are more competitive than South America but also experienced less TTCR score growth. In contrast, all but three of South America’s members states covered by this report improved their competitiveness since 2017.

Europe and Eurasia

Europe and Eurasia remain the most competitive when it comes to travel and tourism, with six of the top 10 scorers from the continent. More specifically, Western Europe remained the most competitive sub-region in the world, improving its already high score.

The United Kingdom (6, -1) was the only country in Western Europe to decline in competitiveness dropping one spot since its last ranking, due primarily to the improved competitiveness of the United States and also falling digital demand (online searches of tourism-related subjects), and a slight decline in the business environment.

Spain (1, +0) maintains top place. France (2, +0) also keeps its second place thanks to high cultural resources and business travel ranking. Germany (3, +0) is Western Europe’s largest travel and tourism economy and the third most competitive in the world. Serbia (83, +12) saw the greatest rise in Europe, climbing 12 spots.

Middle East and North Africa

The Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region has improved since the last TTCR, with 12 of the 15 countries in the MENA region increasing their score from the last report. Despite progress, this region still falls below the global average largely due to lower natural and cultural resources and low international openness.

UAE (33, -4) remains the highest scoring country in the region, with its high ranking in ICT readiness and overall infrastructure boosting its score. Egypt (65, +9) is the region’s most improved country, moving up nine places since the last ranking. Saudi Arabia (69, -6) has the largest travel and tourism GDP within the region, but its competitiveness is undermined by a lack of international openness.

Oman (58, +8) ranks 3rd globally for safety and security. Israel (57, +4) leads the region in health and hygiene and human resource and labour market. Meanwhile, Qatar (51, -4) leads the region for business environment, ranking 8th globally, thanks to low tax rates and an efficient legal system.

Sub-Saharan Africa

Sub-Saharan Africa is the lowest ranking travel and tourism region in this year’s report, with all but three of the 36 countries studied performing lower than the global average. Mauritius (54, +1), is the highest-ranking country in the region, largely due to a good business environment and, by comparison to its peers, high health and hygiene and international openness scores. The country is followed by South Africa (61, -8) and Seychelles (62).

Yet, despite its lower rankings, Africa is expected to have the second highest growth rate over the next 10 years, potentially bolstering its attractiveness to international investments in travel and tourism. Moreover, the region has massive potential for nature-based tourism thanks to its relatively underdeveloped, but rich, natural resources.

Rwanda (107, -10) currently leads the region in safety and security, ranking 31st in this pillar,but has seen its ranking in this area slip 22 spots from the last travel and tourism report and the country fell 11 spots overall. Tanzania (95, -4) is another leading country in the region, ranking first in Sub-Saharan Africa for natural resources and 12th in this category globally.

When considered by sub-region, Southern Africa is the most competitive, especially outscoring the other sub-regions in tourist services infrastructure, prioritization of travel and tourism and price competitiveness. Eastern Africa comes second among the sub-regions and Western Africa comes third. However, the report also finds that Western Africa has seen the highest growth of travel and tourism competitiveness in the region.

Anticipating the tipping point

The burden of over-tourism is already being felt by many travel hotspots. Last May, workers at the Louvre Museum in Paris walked out saying that overcrowding was unmanageable and dangerous. Venice has announced plans to redirect cruise ships away from the city’s central islands, following public discontent. In Spain, there is backlash from residents who feel their way of life is disrupted by high levels of tourism.

Many emerging markets have also begun to feel the strain. For example, Thailand had to recently close its famous Maya Bay cove after a rise in visitors caused extensive ecological damage.

These cases show that competitive travel economies might be approaching a ‘tipping point’ where rising tourism is not met with enough carrying capacity or sufficient management policies. The resulting potential loss of competitiveness puts nations at risk of becoming victims of their own success.

“Countries must look beyond their short-term gains from travel and tourism to ensure a positive future for their economies,” said Lauren Uppink, Head of Aviation, Travel and Tourism at the World Economic Forum, “Travel and tourism can drive economies, but only if policy-makers ensure proper management of their tourism assets, which requires a holistic, multistakeholder approach.”

Without appropriate investment in travel infrastructure and other travel resources, long term competitiveness may be undermined by bottlenecks. The Forum plans to continue research on over-tourism’s effects on travel and tourism competitiveness with its ‘Data for Destinations’ project launching in 2020.

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International Tourist Numbers Down 65% in First Half of 2020

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International tourist arrivals plunged 93% in June when compared to 2019, with the latest data from the World Tourism Organization showing the severe impact COVID-19 has had on the sector. According to the new issue of the World Tourism Barometer from the United Nations specialized agency, international tourist arrivals dropped by 65% during the first half of the year. This represents an unprecedented decrease, as countries around the world closed their borders and introduced travel restrictions in response to the pandemic.

Over recent weeks, a growing number of destinations have started to open up again to international tourists. UNWTO reports that, as of early September, 53% of destinations had eased travel restrictions. Nevertheless, many governments remain cautious, and this latest report shows that the lockdowns introduced during the first half of the year have had a massive impact on international tourism. The sharp and sudden fall in arrivals has placed millions of jobs and businesses at risk.

Counting the economic cost

According to UNWTO, the massive drop in international travel demand over the period January-June 2020 translates into a loss of 440 million international arrivals and about US$ 460 billion in export revenues from international tourism. This is around five times the loss in international tourism receipts recorded in 2009 amid the global economic and financial crisis.

UNWTO Secretary-General Zurab Pololikashvili said: “The latest World Tourism Barometer shows the deep impact this pandemic is having on tourism, a sector upon which millions of people depend for their livelihoods. However, safe and responsible international travel is now possible in many parts of the world, and it is imperative that governments work closely with the private sector to get global tourism moving again. Coordinated action is key.”

All global regions hit hard

Despite the gradual reopening of many destinations since the second half of May, the anticipated improvement in international tourism numbers during the peak summer season in the Northern Hemisphere did not materialize. Europe was the second-hardest hit of all global regions, with a 66% decline in tourist arrivals in the first half of 2020. The Americas (-55%), Africa and the Middle East (both -57%) also suffered. However, Asia and the Pacific, the first region to feel the impact of COVID-19 on tourism, was the hardest hit, with a 72% fall in tourists for the six-month period.

At the sub-regional level, North-East Asia (-83%) and Southern Mediterranean Europe (-72%) suffered the largest declines. All world regions and sub-regions recorded declines of more than 50% in arrivals in January-June 2020. The contraction of international demand is also reflected in double-digit declines in international tourism expenditure among large markets. Major outbound markets such as the United States and China continue to be at a standstill, though some markets such as France and Germany have shown some improvement in June. 

Looking ahead, it seems likely that reduced travel demand and consumer confidence will continue to impact results for the rest of the year. In May, UNWTO outlined three possible scenarios, pointing to declines of 58% to 78% in international tourist arrivals in 2020. Current trends through August point to a drop in demand closer to 70% (Scenario 2), especially now as some destinations re-introduce restrictions on travel.

The extension of the scenarios to 2021 point to a change in trend next year, based on the assumptions of a gradual and linear lifting of travel restrictions, the availability of a vaccine or treatment and a return of traveller confidence. Nonetheless, despite this, the return to 2019 levels in terms of tourist arrivals would take between 2 to 4 years.

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Global Community Unites to Celebrate “Tourism and Rural Development”

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The 2020 edition of World Tourism Day will celebrate the unique role that tourism plays in providing opportunities outside of big cities and preserving cultural and natural heritage all around the world.

Celebrated on 27 September with the theme of Tourism and Rural Development, this year’s international day of observation comes at a critical moment, as countries around the world look to tourism to drive recovery, including in rural communities where the sector is a leading employer and economic pillar.

The 2020 edition also comes as governments look to the sector to drive recovery from the effects of the pandemic and with the enhanced recognition of tourism at the highest United Nations level. This was most notably illustrated with the recent release of a landmark Policy Brief on tourism from UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres in which he explained that “for rural communities, indigenous peoples and many other historically marginalized populations, tourism has been a vehicle for integration, empowerment and generating income.”

Historic International Cooperation

For the first time in the 40-year history of World Tourism Day, the official celebration will not be hosted by a single Member State of the United Nations specialized agency. Instead, nations from the Mercosur bloc (Argentina, Brazil, Paraguay and Uruguay, with Chile joining with observer status) will serve as joint hosts. This co-hosting agreement exemplifies the spirit of international solidarity that runs through tourism and which UNWTO has recognized as essential for recovery.

UNWTO Secretary-General Zurab Pololikashvili said: “All around the world, tourism empowers rural communities, providing jobs and opportunity, most notably for women and youth. Tourism also enables rural communities to hold onto their unique cultural heritage and traditions, and the sector is vital for safeguarding habitat and endangered species. This World Tourism Day is a chance to recognize the role tourism plays outside of major cities and its ability to build a better future for all.”

Rural areas hit hard by COVID-10

For countless rural communities around the world, tourism is a leading provider of employment and opportunities. In many places, it is one of the few viable economic sectors. Moreover, development through tourism can also keep rural communities alive. It is estimated that by 2050, 68% of the world population will live in urban areas, while 80% of those currently living in ‘extreme poverty’ live outside of towns and cities.

The situation is particularly hard for youth: young people in rural communities are three times more likely to be unemployed than older adults. Tourism is a lifeline, offering young people a chance to earn a living without having to migrate either within their home countries or abroad.

World Tourism Day 2020 will once again be celebrated by UNWTO’s Member States in all global regions as well as by cities and other destinations and by private sector organizations and individual tourists. It comes as communities in rural areas also struggle with the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic. These communities are usually much less-prepared to deal with the short and longer-term impacts of the crisis. This is due to a number of factors, including their aging populations, lower income levels and the continuing ‘digital divide’. Tourism offers a solution to all of these challenges.  

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Covid-19 and Transforming Tourism

Zurab Pololikashvili

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If tourism brings us together, then travel restrictions keep us apart.

More importantly, restrictions on travel also prevent tourism from delivering on its potential to build a better future for all.

This week the United Nations Secretary-General launched the Policy Brief “COVID-19 and Transforming Tourism”, which UNWTO assumed the lead role in producing.

This landmark report makes clear what is at stake – the threat of losing tens of millions of direct tourism jobs, the loss of opportunities for those vulnerable populations and communities who stand to benefit most from tourism, and the real risk of losing vital resources for safeguarding natural and cultural heritage across the world.

Tourism needs to thrive, and this means that travel restrictions must be eased or lifted in a timely and responsible manner. It also means that policy decisions need to be coordinated across borders to face up to a challenge which does not care about borders! “COVID-19 and Transforming Tourism” is a further element in the roadmap for the sector to regain its unique status as a source of hope and opportunity for all.

This is true for both developing and developed nations, and all governments and international organizations have a stake in supporting tourism.

But we can only call on governments to back up strong words with equally strong actions if we move first and take the lead. As destinations open up again, we are resuming in-person visits, to show support, to learn, and to build confidence in international travel.

On the back of our successful visits to destinations in Europe, UNWTO delegations are now seeing first-hand how the Middle East is ready to restart tourism safely and responsibly. In Egypt President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi and his government made clear how strong, targeted support, has saved jobs and allowed tourism to weather this unprecedented storm. Now iconic sites such as the Pyramids are ready to welcome back tourists, with the safety of both tourism workers and tourists themselves a priority. Similarly, the government of Saudi Arabia has warmly welcomed UNWTO and expressed a firm commitment to continue building the Kingdom’s tourism sector, first for domestic visitors and then international visitors.

The pandemic is far from over. As cases across the world make clear, we must be ready to act fast to save lives. But it also now also clear that we can also take decisive action to protect jobs and safeguard the many benefits tourism delivers, both for people and planet.

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