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Slowdown in Global Tourism Growth reflects Current Uncertainties

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The latest edition of the UNWTO World Tourism Barometer confirms the rapid slowdown of international tourism growth since mid 2008, reflecting the impact of rising oil prices at the beginning of the year and the deterioration of the economic situation as well as of consumer  confidence in recent months. Overall growth for 2008 is still projected however at around 2%, building on the strong results of the first five months.

The tourism sector’s effective response to the economic downturn will be discussed at the Global Ministers’ Summit at the World Travel Market in London on 11 November. A series of regional response groups will follow, starting in the Middle East (Sharm el Sheikh, Egypt, 23-24 November).

After a sound start to the year (international tourist arrivals worldwide averaged 5.7% from January-April), growth fell below 2% in June, July and August as the high price of oil and rising inflation took their toll, and together with recession fears, squeezed travel budgets. For the first eight months of 2008, growth averaged 3.7% compared with the same period in 2007 while for the year as a whole it is now projected to be at around 2% globally.

And, as the current troubled economic scenario is expected to continue into 2009, UNWTO’s initial forecast for next year is an even more modest performance.

Asia and the Pacific is the region whose growth has deteriorated most rapidly so far after 18 consecutive months of sustained growth, declining from March onwards and even sliding into negative growth in August.

Growth in Europe also stagnated over the northern hemisphere summer months. The Americas, Africa and the Middle East weakened as well, but the slowdown was much less pronounced.

Inside the Regions

Although regional trends may vary as new data becomes available, the Barometer identifies the following regional trends:

• Europe currently stands at +2% for the first eight months of 2008 (well down from the 5% growth of the last two years), and the slowdown has not spared any of its four subregions.

• Asia and the Pacific’s growth (+4%) is also well behind its 2007 level, with Oceania and North-East Asia suffering the brunt of the downturn in demand.

• The Americas has so far performed better than in 2007 with 6% through the first eight months. The region appears to have only experienced a modest slowdown in July and August.

• The Middle East is once again the star performer in 2008 so far, with growth for the period January through August estimated at 17%. Data, though, is still limited which may lead to the need of revising this estimate.

• Africa’s growth is currently running at less than half the level achieved in 2007, and this is still largely thanks to North Africa’s strong performance as in Subsaharan Africa average growth has been pulled down noticeably as compared to the 2007 growth rate.

Prospects

Including August, 23 million more arrivals have been counted for 2008 so far, totalling 642 million international tourist arrivals. But much of the figures for the period January-August reflect the situation before the beginning of the slowdown - following a steady worldwide increase, which even reached 7% in May. The growth in international tourist arrivals fell to less than 2% in June, and 1% in the peak travel months of July and August showing that energy prices, inflation and the credit crunch started to have a real impact on travel and tourism demand.

The economic downturn, combined with the current uncertainties, extreme market volatility and a decline in both consumer and business confidence, are expected to continue taking their toll on demand for tourism – at least in the short to medium term:

• Many businesses are expected to retrench, and any such retrenchment will be quickly felt in consumer markets.

• Given the current stress on many companies’ balance sheets, business travel is also expected to be more adversely impacted than the leisure segment.

• Unlike previous crisis such as with September 11 and SARS, the current downturn does not impact on the desire to travel. The major concern is about whether one can afford to travel or want to spend on it given the uncertain economic situation.

So far international tourism has resisted the downturn better than other economic sectors such as construction and real estate or car manufacturing. As in previous crisis situations:

• traffic to closer destinations, including domestic travel, is expected to be favoured as compared to long-haul travel;

• segments such as visiting friends and relatives, repeat visitors, as well as special interest and independent travellers are expected to be more resilient;

• the decline in average length of stay as well as on expenditure is projected to be more pronounced than in the overall volume;

• destinations offering value for money and with favourable exchange rates have an advantage as price becomes a key issue;

• companies will and should concentrate on containment of cost in order to keep their competitive edge;

• more than ever it is necessary to closely work together in the tourism value chain, between public and private sector, and destinations with trade.

The Barometer stresses that the anticipated softening of international tourism growth in 2008, and further in 2009, follows four historically strong years. Between 2004 and 2007 international tourist arrivals grew at an extraordinary rate of 7% a year, well above the 4% long-term average.

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