Last year, if you noticed more people cramming their bodies into St. Mark's Square in Venice or jostling for a ride up the Eiffel Tower, you weren't suffering from demophobia. There were more people in your personal travel space.
This week, the World Tourism Organization, a United Nations agency, released the preliminary results of its international tourism study for 2017. And? The numbers are up by more than 80 million overnight visitors, for a total of 1.3 billion. That is akin to every citizen in China taking a vacation to Walt Disney World. (For Mickey's sake, hopefully not at the same time.)
"There has been quite a strong demand for tourism," said John Kester, the organization's director of statistics and tourism trends, "especially in Europe."
According to the organization's World Tourism Barometer, which is based on data supplied by individual countries, international tourism has been increasing at a steady pace since the 2009 financial crisis. (The study does not include domestic or same-day travel.) In 2010, the organization registered a 6.6 percent increase worldwide, followed by a six-year stretch in the 4 percent range. The figure leapfrogged to 6.7 percent last year.
"Seven percent is more of the exception than the rule," Kester explained by phone from his home in Madrid.
For this year, the organization anticipates a more measured increase of 4 or 5 percent.
"In 2018, we expect a continuation of growth," he said, "but it will be more sustained and moderate."
In addition to the worldwide trend, the agency punched the numbers for five global areas. Europe busted the growth chart at 8.5 percent, more than tripling its 2016 number. Africa was tight on Europe's heels at 7.9 percent; Asia and the Pacific, and the Middle East were within striking distance at 5.8 and 4.9 percent, respectively. The Americas were at 2.9 percent.
"In the Americas, the picture is quite bright," he said, referring to the region that includes the Caribbean, Canada and Latin America, "with the exception of the United States."
In other words, if this were a race, the United States was the runner who showed up hung over and wearing flip-flops. The U.S. score dragged down the rest of Team Americas.
The organization does not make projections for individual countries, but an unofficial assessment of the data shows France clinching the most-visited spot for 2017 (oui, encore), with more than 88 million visitors, an 8 percent increase. Spain ousted the United States for the number two position, attracting 82 million visitors, or 7 million additional people. (Visits to the United States plunged by 4 percent.)
"For one year, you can do it," Kester said of Spain's 9 percent rise, "but for the longer term, you really need to prepare."
Several factors goosed international tourism. Among the main factors: an upturn in the global economy; sustained growth in many destinations, such as Mexico, Portugal and Thailand; a rebound of tourists from Brazil and Russia, and a ballooning population of Chinese travelers. Kester also noted that terrorism is not deterring people from traveling abroad.
"Bad things can happen," he said, "and we deal with that."
Some areas attracted visitors like butterflies to orange blossoms. Kester said the Mediterranean had a standout year, as did Central and Eastern Europe. Croatia, Slovenia, Montenegro and Bosnia did "really well," he said. In the Middle East, Oman and Dubai were strong tourism magnets. In Africa, he said, "there were some setbacks with the economic crisis, but the area is recovering nicely." Tourism in South Africa and Kenya, for instance, is "picking up." A selection of smaller African countries, such as Cabo Verde, Reunion Island and the Seychelles, gave the continent an extra boost with double-digit growth.
Countries reap financial gains from tourism, the third-highest breadwinner after fuel and chemicals, but unfettered expansion does have its downsides. One repercussion is what Kester calls "congestion" and other critics refer to as "overtourism." To avoid the masses, Kester encourages travelers to seek out lighter-touristed destinations, such as Bulgaria or Montenegro, or regions, such as Emilia-Romagna in Italy or Extremadura in Spain. Of course, he still encourages first-time travelers to Europe to visit the heritage destinations (Paris, Rome, London and its ilk) and their iconic monuments. Certainly 670 million tourists can make room for one more.
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