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Global troubles took toll on tourism in 2003, growth to resume in 2004

Battered by a series of problems, international tourism arrivals fell 1,2 per cent in 2003, the biggest annual drop ever. However, the outlook for…

Battered by a series of problems, international tourism arrivals fell 1,2 per cent in 2003, the biggest annual drop ever. However, the outlook for this year is much brighter, the World Tourism Organization (WTO) announced at a news conference on Tuesday.

In 2003, international tourism lived through another exceptionally difficult year in which three negative factors came together: the Iraq conflict, SARS and a persistently weak economy, explained WTO Secretary-General Mr. Francesco Frangialli. The Iraq conflict and the high level of uncertainty leading up to it depressed worldwide travel in the first quarter of the year. The unexpected outbreak of SARS brought the steady growth of Asia and the Pacific temporarily to an abrupt halt, causing many destinations in the region to welcome less than half of their usual number of arrivals in April and May.

Although conditions improved considerably as the year progressed, with positive figures generally starting to return in the second half, the recovery was not sufficient to result in growth for all destinations. The travel industry was affected – what branch of the economy would not have been in such circumstances! affirmed Mr. Frangialli. But it did not collapse. The decline was limited, and in such a hostile environment this very fact confirms the resilience of tourism, based on the incompressible need for travel and leisure that characterizes consumers in post-industrial societies.

Despite a series of difficult years, from 2001 to 2003, the number of international tourist arrivals had still managed to show an overall increase of seven million, equivalent to a rise of one per cent, over the millennium year of 2000, he added.

Regional results

Preliminary estimates of full year results, published in the WTO World Tourism Barometer, show the number of international arrivals slid by 1,2 per cent to 694 million, some 8.5 million less than in 2002, said WTO Chief of Market Intelligence Mr. Augusto Huescar.

EUROPE experienced zero growth as the Western and Southern/Mediterranean sub-regions felt the combined effects of a weak economy – with some of the major European source markets in or close to recession – and the strong Euro. International arrivals in Western Europe showed a fall of 3.7 million (-3%), while Southern Europe closed the year flat and Central and Eastern Europe repeated their successes from 2002.

ASIA AND THE PACIFIC results were closely linked to the unexpected drop of 12 million arrivals (-9%) due to the SARS epidemic. Whereas the previous top performers North-East Asia (-9%) and South East Asia (-16%) suffered severe losses, South Asia (+17%) made a strong comeback after two difficult years, hand-in-hand with a booming economy and trade liberalization.

The AMERICAS also recorded a decrease (-1%), with North America the only sub-region to record a loss (-5%) for the third year in a row, mainly due to the weak economy and continuing concerns about security after 11 September (2001). The Caribbean (+8%) and South America (+12%) rebounded strongly from the negative figures of the previous two years, fuelled by improved economies in major countries such as Argentina and Brazil, which helped to boost intra-regional travel.

The MIDDLE EAST and AFRICA recovered quickly during the year; recording the best results of all the regions with estimated increases of 10 per cent and five per cent respectively. Especially significant was the growth in intra-regional travel in the Middle East, while the governments of countries in both regions started to show much more support for tourism development.

2004 prospects

Forecasts for this year are generally optimistic, based essentially on positive signs of recovery in the economies of the US, Japan and Western Europe and the moderation in conflicts. The large pent-up demand for travel is bound to express itself as soon as circumstances allow according to the leading decision-makers and analysts on the WTO World Tourism Barometer panel, said Mr. Huescar.

If we are able to avoid further crises, if we do not allow fears–sometimes irrational fears–to sweep everything away, and if the necessary security measures that governments have the duty to implement, especially in air transport, remain reasonable and balanced so as not to extinguish all desire to travel, then we can be confident in the industry`s capacity to move forward, said Mr. Frangialli. The difficult period we have just gone through at least had one positive outcome. When the tourism industry is doing well, there is a tendency for its development to be taken for granted. When times are harder, only then do people realize just how much is at stake and how important tourism is in terms of growth, foreign exchange income and employment.