Global travel increased in all regions in 2018, led by the Middle East/Africa region. While international visitor numbers will follow that trend this year, that growth is expected to slow.
MADRID—International tourist arrivals increased 6% to 1.4 billion in 2018, with the Middle East and Africa leading regional growth, and speakers at a conference of the United Nations World Tourism Organization said the global travel industry continues on an upward path.
Growth in visitor numbers is expected to continue in 2019, although at a slower pace.
“We had originally predicted this 1.4 billion figure for 2020, but we hit the mark two years early,” said UNWTO secretary-general Zurab Pololikashvili. “These numbers consolidate the strong results from (2017) when arrivals were up by 7%, and 2018 was the strongest in growth since 2010.”
A favorable global economic environment, strong outbound demand from major source markets like China, tourism recovery in key destinations, enhanced air connectivity and better visa facilitation helped drive the increase, he said.
New technology linked to the travel industry and new business models also contributed to growth, according to the organization’s annual report released at the conference.
The increase in arrivals is being seen throughout every global region, Pololikashvili said.
“There was almost no country in the world (that) did not register an increase in tourism, and most regions or continents posted impressive numbers,” he said.
According to tourism arrival numbers based on data from national governments, the Middle East posted a 10% jump over last year to 64 million arrivals, and Africa enjoyed a 7% rise in visitors to 67 million. Both regions recorded figures ahead of forecasts.
Europe hosted 713 million foreign visitors for a 6% increase, with southern Europe accounting for most of the improvement. The Asia/Pacific region also increased 6% in 2018, with 343 million international arrivals.
In the Americas, inbound global visitors rose 3% year over year to 217 million, with North America up 4% and South America up by 3%. Central America and the Caribbean each slipped 2%, which the UNWTO attributed to the effects of Hurricane Irma and Hurricane Maria, both of which occurred in 2017 but the demand effects continued into 2018.
By country, the United States sat at the top of the rankings in attracting international visitors, followed by France, Spain, Italy and China, respectively.
In terms of outbound travel spend, Russian travelers led the way with spending up by almost 16%. French travelers placed second with a 10% increase and Australian travelers were third with a 9% increase.
Pololikashvili said the UNWTO forecasts growth for 2019, although it is likely that growth will not increase as dramatically as 2018. He said the 2019 forecast calls for growth between 3% and 4%.
“This is more in line with historical growth trends and will be supported by things like stable oil prices and improving air connectivity, which helps diversify generating markets,” Pololikashvili said.
There will also be more travel from emerging markets like Russia, India, the Middle East and the smaller Asian nations, along with China in 2019, he said.
Pololikashvili cautioned there are always political risks or natural disasters that could affect worldwide travel.
He added travelers and industry investors also might adopt a wait-and-see attitude due to the slowing of the world economy, rising geopolitical and trade tensions and uncertainty surrounding Brexit.
“But I also think that this year we’ll see a consolidation in trends we’re already experiencing in the industry, such as people looking for healthy and sports-oriented travel, more multi-generational family trips and vacations with sustainability as the goal,” Pololikashvili said. “Digitalization, new business models, more affordable travel and societal changes are expected to continue shaping our sector, so both destinations and companies need to adapt if they want to remain competitive.”