Tuesday September 27 was World Tourism Day. You didn’t know? You’re not the only one. As my mate Ian at Travel Massive pointed out, on one website, National Chocolate Milk Day got more shares than World Tourism Day. Slow clap fellas.
I’d planned to write a piece to coincide with the day, but I’ve been a bit off health-wise and, as regulars would have noticed, posts have been, to say the least, erratic. My apologies. Anyway, I’m more or less back on deck, and have decided to write a series about tourism in the region rather than a one off piece. Each day, I’ll be looking at one aspect of tourism in Southeast Asia, and use a specific region or destination to illustrate my thoughts on it. Today is an introductory piece looking briefly at the UNWTO and World Tourism Day.
As this is a bit different from the regular programming, the posts will be going out to the full list. The regular itinerary series will resume when I’m done. I hope you find these pieces of interest and, as always, your thoughts and feedback are much appreciated.
So where to start? Let’s start with a brief look at the day itself, and what it has highlighted over the years.
World Tourism Day is the brainchild of the United Nations World Tourism Organisation (UNWTO). I’ll use their own words to describe the role of the UNWTO as they see themselves. The order of what tourism drives is instructive.
“As the leading international organization in the field of tourism, UNWTO promotes tourism as a driver of economic growth, inclusive development and environmental sustainability and offers leadership and support to the sector in advancing knowledge and tourism policies worldwide.”
The choice of September 27 marks the day of the adoption of the UNWTO statutes in 1970, and it has run every year since 1980. Its purpose is to raise awareness of the role of tourism with regard to cultural, economic, political and social values.
Each year the day has a theme, this year, the 43rd such event, and hosted by Indonesia, is “Rethinking Tourism.” You can see a full list of the various themes here, and if you scan down the list, you’ll notice a recurring theme. Can’t see it? Here I made a word cloud of the words used most often, to better illustrate—the more often the word features, the bigger the text is.
Word Cloud via the smart cookies at WordClouds.
The word “environment”? It hasn’t featured since 1997 (“climate change” slipped in in 2008—yes, tweleve years ago). “Development” meanwhile, is the most used word after “tourism”. To be fair, it is sometimes with “sustainable,” but development is a growth term and that’s what the UNWTO is all about. Making stuff—in particular, economies—grow.
If you read the list from bottom up, you might see a shift in focus that may or may not reflect wider concerns of the time. Here’s a quick timeline working on the slogans—not the substance—of each event. For each decade, I note the number of international arrivals (worldwide) in the first year of the decade, and the share of arrivals that was absorbed by Asia and the Pacific. All numbers are from Our World in Data, I’m not sure why their most up-to-date numbers are from 2018.
In summary, inbound tourism went from 278.1 million in 1980 to 1.4 billion in 2018, while Asia and the Pacific’s share of those inbounds rose from around 8% to almost 25%. Staggering.
International arrivals in 1980: 278.10 million
Share of arrivals into Asia and the Pacific: 8.27%
Through the 1980s the focus was on responsibility, peace, cooperation and friendship. Heritage, mutual understanding, and education for all, also featured as themes. To my mind, these are all staples of the “good” tourism has the potential to bring.
The 80s was also a stretch when a great many worried about dying in a nuclear firestorm, so there’s that too—perhaps we all needed a bit more love after the 1970s.
International arrivals in 1990: 439.40 million
Share of arrivals into Asia and the Pacific: 12.79%
With almost double the number of tourists of the previous decade, an economic tilt appears. “Peace,” “harmony,” and “tolerance” all make it in, but a business focus begins to rear its head. Delight in the wonkish “Public-private sector partnership: the key to tourism development and promotion.” I want that on a t-shirt yesterday.
1997 also saw the Asian Financial Crisis which kicked off in Indonesia and rolled right across the region. Thanks to the collapse in the value of many currencies in the region, it became a hell of a lot cheaper to travel in for inbound tourists.
International arrivals in 2000: 682.10 million
Share of arrivals into Asia and the Pacific: 16.21%
Another decade, and another couple of hundred million people coast through immigration. I mention immigration as refugees are not on the UNWTO’s radar—they’re more the UNHCR’s gig—which is to say the volume of humanity on the move was far larger than the UNWTO’s figures.
The 2000s sees empowering women, celebrations of diversity and climate change as highlights, though the economic focus continues to grow. For example, tourism has a role in job creation, and poverty alleviation—worthy of attention thanks to the various economic crises around the world across the decade.
International arrivals in 2010: 950.80 million
Share of arrivals into Asia and the Pacific: 21.61%
Off the back of a boom in outbound tourism from China (from under 60 million in 2010 to over 160 million in 2018), worldwide tourism skyrockets. Midway through this explosion, in 2015, we have the non-alarmist yet totally alarming theme “1 billion tourists, 1 billion opportunities.” Opportunities for what exactly?
Some form of development features in almost half the themes through the decade. There are though, the first indicators that not all might be good with incessant growth. Biodiversity, water, and accessibility all feature. Who is getting to travel—and who is paying the price?
International arrivals in 2018: 1.4 billion
Share of arrivals into Asia and the Pacific: 24.43%
News stories related to overtourism are dime a dozen as destinations lurch under the load of hundreds of millions of new bums of seats. This is, after all, what unfettered growth is all about.
In the first years of the new decade, World Tourism Day settles for rural development and inclusive growth. After the last couple of pandemic years, I don’t think anyone could fault a “Rethink” as being desirable.
Chart via Our World In Data (It only goes till 2018, not sure why).
Overtourism is yet to feature as a theme. The UNWTO did publish this report in response to it though. It includes eleven “strategies and measures to address visitors’ growth in cities.”
Not one suggests taking steps to arrest the overall growth in tourist numbers.
PS: For arrival data through to mid 2022, see the UNWTO data dashboard.
Other episodes in the Rethinking Tourism series:
National Chocolate Milk Day (World Tourism Day)
Nice Tourism (Sustainable Tourism)
The Benevolent Lie (Responsible Tourism)
The Year Is 2006. The Town Is Luang Prabang (Pro-poor Tourism)
Zoom in to the Red Plastic Chairs (Slow Travel)
The Petro-bourgeoisie (Flying, carbon etcetera)
Reality Check (Tour companies)
Follow the Money (Money matters)
Foundations Matter (Community Based Tourism)
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