Select Page

As the holiday season approaches, we look at the rise and rise of tourism and find out where the worlds 1.4bn international travellers go on vacation

How many people travel abroad on holiday?

Tourism is on the rise. In 2018 there were a record 1.4bn international tourist arrivals, according to the World Tourism Organization (UNTWO), a rise of 6% over 2017. That doesnt mean 1.4 billion people travel abroad for their holidays, as many people will clock up more than one trip.

But it does mean tourism is playing an increasingly important role in the global economy. In 2018, it was worth about $1.7tn (1.3tn), or about 2% of total global GDP. Even the UNWTO is struggling to keep up, with current figures vastly exceeding expectations.

tourist numbers

In 1950 there were 25m international tourist visits, rising to 166m in 1970, and 435m in 1990.

The growth of budget airlines has made travelling more accessible, with passengers able to fly from London Stansted to Dsseldorf for just 7.99. For many Londoners, this costs less than a days commute.

Nikodem Szumilo, associate professor of economics and finance of the built environment at UCL, says the growth of the global tourist industry is partly due to the rise of digital services. The most recent development in the industry was a small revolution of online reviews and online bookings which reduced prices but increased satisfaction, he says. This means that more people travel more often.

What are the most popular destinations?

According to the UNWTO, four-fifths of tourists travel within their own region. Continuing a long term trend, Europe leads the way in overseas visits, receiving 713 million visitors last year alone.

Globally, France leads the way, followed by Spain, the US, China and Italy. The UK is the seventh most visited country in the world.

tourist origin

However, other regions are on the rise. Last year, trips to North Africa rose 10%, and tourism to sub-Saharan Africa and the Middle East is also increasing, as demand for unconventional destinations grows.

In 2018, Uber ranked the most visited destinations around the world for its users. The Empire State Building in New York claimed first place, followed by the citys Freedom Tower and CN Tower in Toronto. The Arc de Triomphe and Eiffel Tower in Paris completed the top five.

Buckingham Palace, the only British attraction in the top 15, came seventh ahead of the Berlin Wall, the Vatican, Disneyland and the Egyptian pyramids.

So which country provides the most visitors?

The number of tourists produced by a country tends to correlate with its income and population.

Chinas rising wealth has resulted in a huge growth of tourism abroad, making Chinese people the worlds most abundant tourists. In 2017, Chinese tourists made 143m journeys abroad, followed by Germany (92m), the US (87.8m) and the UK (74.2m).

global tourism map

According to the Office for National Statistics, UK residents consistently make more visits abroad than foreign residents make to Britain. Favoured destinations are Spain, France and Italy. Three in four Britons remain within the EU, but the US was the fourth most visited location for UK citizens last year.

Tourism is growing rapidly in Russia, whose tourist numbers rose by 16% last year. France and Australia are increasingly important players, increasing by 10% and 9% respectively.

Who comes to the UK?

Unsurprisingly, London was the UKs most popular destination, with more than half of all UK visits including a trip to the capital. Edinburgh was the second hottest tourist spot, and Manchester third.

Americans top the list of arrivals, but four-fifths of the UKs most-visiting countries were from Europe.

How important is tourism to the UK?

The tourist industry is responsible for about 2.5% of British GDP. Last year, visitors spent almost 23bn in the UK, though visitor numbers fell slightly on 2017 (a record year).

In spite of this dip, Visit Britain the official tourism board estimates that by 2025 Britains tourism industry could be worth as much as 10% of GDP and will employ more than one in 10 people.

Will Brexit have an impact?

Claudio Milano from Ostelea School of Tourism doesnt think so, calling the supposed link between Brexit and tourism mainly political propaganda.

He said that the most likely impact of Brexit on the tourist industry is on labour patterns. Tourism is a sector which is based on migrant workers, he says. So Brexit will have more of impact on tourisms workforce than on the attractiveness of the UK.

Guardian Design Photograph: Guardian Design

Sun, culture, jobs, growth whats not to like?

Er overcrowding, rising property prices, planeloads of stag parties marauding through Euro capitals with penis-tiaras on their heads: there is a dark side to tourism.

Hotspots around the world are struggling under the weight of over-tourism, which threatens massive destruction of local environments and communities.

Tourists are responsible for large quantities of single-use plastics that pollute beaches and threaten wildlife, and souvenir hunters have been known to break off pieces of endangered coral to keep as memorabilia.


While traffic and overcrowding are well documented side effects of tourism, Szumilo says intense pressure on hospitals and public transport from tourists can also strain resources, leaving public services unable to cater for locals.

Szumilo highlights the impact of holiday homes on local communities. Often empty for most of the year, second homes can reduce supply for locals, limit economic growth and raise house prices.

When we talk about travel and tourism, we think about beaches, holiday resorts, and iconic sceneries, says Marina Novelli, professor of tourism and international development at the University of Brighton.

We tend not to think about space politics, social justice, gender equality, poverty alleviation, environmental management or the impact that epidemics or conflicts may inflict on destinations.

Whats to blame?

According to Milano, the phenomenon of over-tourism comes partially from the rise in global mobility. Increased transnational travel has led to rising numbers of international students, migrant workers, second home residents, and even journalists working overseas. He also emphasises the role of neoliberalism, which he says is turning cities from locations to destinations.

The rise of short-term letting apps has also been blamed. Last month, 10 European cities issued a joint letter to the EU demanding help in their battle against Airbnb. The company has long been criticised for its role in housing shortages, raising house prices and displacing local residents.

Guardian Design Illustration: Guardian Design

What are countries doing about it?

Last month, the picturesque city of Bruges announced it would stop advertising day trips, limit the number of cruise ships docking nearby and shift docking times to ease the weekend rush.

The Unesco world heritage site has experienced a 28% rise in tourism in the past two years, with the mayor, Dirk De Fauw, doubting the citys ability to cope with mounting numbers of tourists. We have to control the influx more if we dont want Bruges to become a complete Disneyland here, he says.

Last year another Unesco world heritage site, Dubrovnik, announced limitations on cruise ships. After overcrowding in ancient alleyways, outdoor tables were also restricted, and new crackdowns were imposed on street vendors catering to swathes of tourists.

Following in the footsteps of popular Majorca, Rome which hosts 15.2 million tourists annually recently announced restrictions on antisocial tourist behaviour. The measures include a crackdown on drunk and disorderly conduct and a ban on shirtless sightseeing.

Guardian Design Photograph: Guardian Design

After causing structural damage to picturesque bridges around the world, love padlocks attached by romantic partners are also coming under new regulation.

Bridges in Paris have already begun their removal, with the deputy mayor saying they spoil the aesthetics of the bridge, are structurally bad for it and can cause accidents.

Hardly the best omen for relationships, but perhaps the only way to save the City of Love.

However, these targeted measures may not be enough. Milano says that to meaningfully change the tourist industry, we first need to change the way we understand it.

Tourism is generally only measured in the number of international arrivals, but we need new indicators and a new set of measures of tourism, he says. For example, do we have gender equality in our tourist industries? Why are men always executives? Are jobs in tourism decent? What about the liveability of local residents? Its a question at a political level about how we define and understand tourism.

Read more: https://www.theguardian.com/news/2019/jul/01/global-tourism-hits-record-highs-but-who-goes-where-on-holiday