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Tourist numbers near 900 million as industry marks record year – UN agency

Tourist numbers near 900 million as industry marks record year – UN agency

The number of international tourists continues to climb, with 898 million arrivals registered last year and further increases expected as traditionally poor countries emerge as more popular tourist destinations, according to the latest United Nations snapshot.

The UN World Tourism Organization (UNWTO) reported that last year’s total represents a jump of 52 million people – or about 6 per cent – on 2006 figures, with all major regions experiencing an above-average percentage increase.

“Economic and tourism growth are driven by emerging markets and developing economies,” said UNWTO Secretary-General Francesco Frangialli in a statement from the organization’s headquarters in Madrid.

“While mature markets remain the leading destinations in the world, the faster growth rate of new markets confirms UNWTO’s main message of tourism’s potential for the developing world.”

UNWTO noted that the Middle East enjoyed the biggest percentage rise last year, with total international tourist numbers leaping 13 per cent to 46 million, despite the ongoing threats and tensions across the region. Saudi Arabia and Egypt proved especially popular.

Asia and the Pacific received 185 million visitors (10 per cent improvement), driven mainly by double-digit percentage increases in tourist numbers to Malaysia, Cambodia, Viet Nam, Indonesia, Japan, India and China.

Africa reported an 8 per cent rise to an estimated 44 million, led by the increasing allure of North Africa – particularly Morocco. UNWTO has also identified South Africa as a growing destination ahead of its hosting of the World Cup soccer tournament in 2010.

After only minimal growth in 2006, the Americas rose by 5 per cent to about 143 million, in part because of the increasing popularity of Central and South American destinations among tourists from Europe and the United States.

The most popular region, Europe, received 480 million international tourists last year, a rise of 4 per cent, thanks to strong growth in Turkey, Greece, Portugal, Italy and Switzerland.

UNWTO said the outlook for 2008 is positive, despite the uncertainty in some markets, particularly the US, because of the subprime mortgage crises, high oil prices and uncertain economic prospects. Developing economies have been responsible for much of the increase in global gross domestic product (GDP) during the past decade, and UNWTO said this correlates to their experience as increasingly popular tourism destinations, with nearly double the growth of high-income countries.