It seems nothing can stop international tourism, except maybe coronavirus. But even the damage caused by the virus to the tourist industry may be fleeting, as international travel keeps growing.
How hardy is international tourism? According to the United Nations World Tourism Organization, international tourist arrivals (defined as overnight visitors) worldwide grew 4% in 2019 to 1.5 billion, despite uncertainty over Brexit, the collapse of Thomas Cook and several low-cost airlines, plus trade tensions and the global economic slowdown.
The usual suspects, France and Spain, led the list of most popular destinatons. France had more than 90 million visitors in 2019. Spain, which has a population of only 46 million and had a number of “Tourist Go Home” demonstrations, nonetheless hosted 83.8 million.
But the fastest-growing destinations wee to be found elsewhere. According to UNWTO, the Middle East (+8%) was the fastest-growing region, followed by Asia and the Pacific, which was up 5%. International travel in Europe and Africa each increased 4%, although travel within the Americas brought up the rear with growth of just 2%. Travel to the U.S. was actually down 1.3%, due to trade tensions, restrictive visa policies and a strong dollar. With airline travel from China to the US curtailed due to coronavirus fears, the downward trend in travel to the US looks set to continue.
So what countries are the hippest international adventurers heading to? Britain’s Independent crunched the numbers and put together a list of the 20 fastest-growing tourist destinations.
Surprisingly, the fastest-growing travel destination was Myanmar, the Asian country once known as Burma. Myanmar has witnessed continuing actions against its Rohingya Muslim minority that has been categorized as “ethnic cleansing.” Yet the formerly isolated country experienced a 40.2 per cent per cent increase in visitors.
Number two on the tourism growth list was Puerto Rico, part of the United States but counted separately. The island suffered the devastation of Hurricane Maria in September 2017, which killed an estimated 3,500 people. With the rebuilding of infrastructure, the long-time tourist destination experienced 31.2% growth over 2018.
The third-fastest growing tourist destination is perhaps the most surprising. The UN numbers show that tourism to Iran grew 27.9 per cent in 2019 undeterred by the large number of foreign nationals detained in that country. But as the Independent dryly puts it, Iran “is likely to suffer a drop in 2020 given the current political climate,” not to mention the dangers of Iran’s aviation system.
Other areas known for instability or terrorism also saw an increasing number of visitors last year. In 2019, international tourists came flocking back to Egypt (up 21.1%) and Turkey (up 14%). Even tourism to Tunisia, where the British government warns “ Terrorists are very likely to try to carry out attacks in Tunisia and there have been a number of attacks in recent years,” was up 13.6 percent.
Terrorism, disease, remoteness , instability, crime—none seems enough to deter a special breed, the hardy international tourist. Once-remote Ethiopia is spending $5 billion on a new airport, no doubt to compete with exotic destinations like Uzbekistan, Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan (already on the top-20 list of fastest-growing travel destinations) for visitors. And despite international tensions, a possible economic slowdown, and the latest terror, the coronavirus, the UN says international tourism will grow another 3% to 4% in 2020.
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