World tourist numbers hit 1.4 billion in 2018, two years ahead of forecast

Tourism to the Middle East grew ahead of global average with a 10% increase to 64 million arrivals, according to the United Nations World Tourism Organisation

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The annual number of tourists crossing international borders in 2018 accelerated to levels forecast for 2020, but this year's outlook is clouded by Brexit and trade tensions, the United Nations World Tourism Organisation said.

International tourist arrivals increased 6 per cent to 1.4 billion last year led by growth in the Middle East and Africa, the UN body said in its latest report. Affordable air fares, stronger global economic growth and liberalised visa regulations helped boost growth to levels the UNWTO did not expect until 2020.

“The growth of tourism in recent years confirms that the sector is today one of the most powerful drivers of economic growth and development,” said Zurab Pololikashvili, UNWTO secretary general.

A 10-year forecast by the UNWTO in 2010 estimated that global tourist arrivals would reach the 1.4 billion mark by 2020. However, the world tourism industry hit that mark two years earlier – in 2018. Global passenger traffic last year grew 6.5 per cent to 4.34 billion, according to the International Air Transport Association.


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Tourist arrivals to the Middle East grew above the global average of 6 per cent, with the region recording a 10 per cent rise from the year before to 64 million overnight visitors in 2018.

“The Middle East showed solid results last year, consolidating its 2017 recovery,” the UNWTO report said.

Africa recorded a 7 per cent increase in tourist arrivals last year with 67 million visitors to the continent.

Asia-Pacific and Europe posted 6 per cent increases in 2018, while the Americas grew below the world average at 3 per cent, the UNWTO said.

The Americas showed mixed results where North America led the region with growth of 4 per cent, followed by South America at 3 per cent while Central America and the Caribbean declined by 2 per cent. The drop in tourist arrivals to the Caribbean reflected the effect of the September 2017 hurricanes Irma and Maria.

In 2019, international tourist arrivals is forecast to grow 3 to 4 per cent in line with historic growth trends, said the report.

However, the global economic slowdown, uncertainty related to Britain leaving the European Union, as well as geopolitical and trade tensions will result in a “wait and see” approach to travel this year, said UNWTO.

The International Monetary Fund lowered its global growth forecast for 2019 and warned of the dangers from escalating trade tensions that have already started to dampen the world economic outlook.

The global economy is set to grow 3.5 per cent in 2019 from 3.7 per cent in 2018, the IMF said in a report this week.

Trends for 2019 point to strong outbound travel from emerging markets, especially India and Russia, but also from smaller Asian and Arab source markets, the UNWTO report said.