In April, the UN World Tourism Organization released nearly final international tourism arrivals and receipts data for 2016. Every region, except the Middle East and Western Europe, recorded positive growth in arrivals compared with 2015—for an estimated total of 1.2 billion international arrivals worldwide, an almost four-percent increase over 2015. The global growth is a bit deceiving, though, because regional and sub-regional growth ranged from a high of 10.7 percent for Sub-Saharan Africa to minus four percent for the Middle East. The following is a region-by-region summary.
Sub-Saharan Africa received 10.7-percent more international arrivals last year than in 2015 reaching an estimated 39.2 million. While this was an increase—the largest annual increase in the world—international tourism to Sub-Saharan Africa is still a tiny 3.2 percent of global tourism. For a continent as large as China, India, the United States and most of Europe combined, the glass is certainly far from full in terms of tourism potential. It is definitely a continent to watch as several airlines, including Qatar, Turkish, Ethiopian and Emirates, and hotel chains, such as Marriott International, AccorHotels and Hilton, have been expanding throughout Africa. The UNWTO international tourism growth forecast for 2017 is 5 percent to 6 percent.
International tourism to the Americas increased by 3.9 percent in 2016 with South America topping the list at 6.3 percent followed by Central America at 5.7 percent, the Caribbean 4.8 percent and North America at 3 percent. Total international arrivals reached more than 200 million. As a whole, the region captured more than 16 percent of global tourism with North America nearly 11 percent. Cuba grew by more than 17 percent in 2015 to 3.5 million international arrivals, Canada by 11 percent in 2016 to almost 20 million, Mexico by 9 percent to 35 million and Chile by 26 percent to 5.6 million. The UNWTO international tourism growth forecast for 2017 is 4 percent to 5 percent, although the U.S. travel ban, which was more a perception of an “unwelcome mat” than reality, is expected to result in slower growth or even a decline in arrivals to the U.S.
Asia and the Pacific
The Asia-Pacific region continued to grow in 2016 with an increase of 8.6 percent over 2015 to more than 300 million international arrivals. North-East Asia was the leading sub-region with about half of all arrivals. China led as both a generating and receiving market with nearly 60 million arrivals, while two countries, Japan and South Korea, receiving huge increases of 24 million arrivals and 17.2 million arrivals, respectively.
South-East Asia recored a healthy 8.4-percent growth rate, with Vietnam leading substantially, clocking in with a 26-percent increase to 10 million, followed by the Philippines at 11.3 percent with 6 million and Thailand at 9 percent with 32.5 million. The UNWTO international tourism growth forecast for 2017 is 5 percent to 6 percent.
The Oceania/South Pacific Region is also booming with nearly a 10-percent increase in 2016 at 15.6 million international arrivals. Australia and New Zealand led the region in total international arrivals with 8.3 million. Fiji, Cook Islands, French Polynesia, Guam, Samoa, Solomon Islands and Vanuatu all grew by more than 4.5 percent.
Overall, Europe grew at a lukewarm 2.1 percent, thus nearly half of the global average. The 2017 forecast of 2 percent to 3 percent is also lukewarm. However, the entire region varied dramatically by sub-region, with Northern Europe leading at 6.4 percent, with much of that growth driven by a staggering 39-percent increase to Iceland, which benefited from super-effective marketing in the U.S. and low-cost Icelandair flights to Europe that offered no cost stop-overs. The country received 1.8 million international arrivals in 2016. Spain continued to grow with international arrivals in 2016 of 75.6 million, a 10.3-percent increase. A decline in tourism to Turkey from a 2015 high of nearly 40 million is also expected to further push down totals for Europe, as well as the forecast for 2017.
As a region, the Middle East received four percent fewer visitors in 2016 than in 2015, but the numbers varied dramatically among the countries. Bahrain received 11.6 million international arrivals in 2015 and seemed to be on track to receive nearly 16 million by 2018. STR estimated that there were over 4000 rooms in the pipeline representing a 33-percent increase over the next years. Egyptian tourism has dropped below 9 million, with the Middle East Monitor reporting a 40-percent drop for 2016. Tourism to UAE, however, is booming with nearly 15 million international arrivals, an increase of almost five percent. In Saudi Arabia, a major tourism push is underway via their Vision 2030 to increase both domestic and inbound visitors; a tourist visa was rumored to be under consideration again and their Umrah+ program for religious pilgrims to extend their stays was recently activated. In addition, Hilton CEO Chris Nassetta recently said in an interview that they have 33 hotels in the pipeline for the country.
Scott Wayne is the President of SW Associates, an international consulting practice focused on sustainable development through tourism for both public and private sector clients and organizations.