Do UNWTO Figures Mislead?

The UNWTO recently published its latest set of forecasts for the future of tourism between 2010 to 2030.  On the surface, there is plenty of reason for satisfaction provided that you are charged with producing the appearance of growth. The reality underneath the superficial glee that tourism will be growing again is very different.

According to the UNWTO, international arrivals increased by 412 million trips per year between 1995 and 2010 such that in 2010 940 million overnight trips across international borders were made. Even though the rate of growth is projected to slow to a mere 3.3% per annum over the next 20 years, the effect in terms of people on the move is staggering. By 2030, the present volume will have doubled to 1.8 billion – that’s an extra 1.8 billion feet walking over and through precious attractions in 2030 than now.

Despite having spent an entire career serving the travel and tourism sector, I find the numbers and the way they are presented just prove the need for the tourism community to wake up.

If tourism wants to be taken seriously and,  by that,  I mean if people who work in the tourism sector want to be taken seriously by people working outside of it, it has to demand more of its leadership and engage one another in a more honest, reflective debate.

We have to give thought to what these numbers actually mean in terms of impact on the quality of people’s lives in either the receiving or the generating countries where an expansion in terms of supportive infrastructure (hotels, airports, parking lots, rail-lines, shopping malls, cruise ship terminals) will be essential if the quality of a visitor experience is not to plummet. How many local people will be displaced by the development of more tourism ghettos or priced out of their own housing market due to the influx of second home buyers from wealthier urban centres?

Has anyone calculated the net benefit of this growth and the cost of providing and maintaining the supportive infrastructure or estimated the opportunity cost of investing funds into this activity versus other forms of economic development?

I have to wonder whether words have finally lost all meaning when the Secretary General of the UNWTO can look at these figures and say “This growth offers enormous possibilities as these can be years of leadership with tourism leading economic growth, social progress, and environmental sustainability.”

Tourism does not lead tourism growth – it depends on surplus wealth being created in the country of origin. At best it distributes that wealth but not as effectively as it might. A significant portion of the growth forecast for the next 20 years will originate from the emerging economies of Asia where tourists will travel on packaged vacations delivered by vertically integrated companies able to achieve economies of scale. Based on current patterns, less than $5 out of every $ 100 spent by vacationers on packaged holidays stays  in the receiving nation.

Why should it be assumed that more visitors to a place leads to “social progress.” when the opposite effect is normally the result – locals are displaced to make room in pristine locations for visitor-related facilities; visitor spending has an inflationary effect on housing, transportation and food costs; residents are encouraged to move from rural to urban centres in search of cash employment; and many of the social-cultural customs that evolved over thousands of years to produce social cohesion are eroded.  The UK-based NGO, Tourism Concern, offers many examples of displacement and social cost It’s not that tourism can’t be a force for good – it’s just that it most certainly is not inevitable and care needs to be taken.

And finally to describe a doubling of tourism volume as providing “opportunities for tourism to lead environmental sustainability” confirms to me that our leaders are walking their long corridors in some form of trance. Every year the UNWTO spins its econometric model and spews out more numbers offering no sign that they have any idea as to their impact or desirability. As recently as two weeks ago, the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) and the Organisation of Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), warned that emissions from the global tourism industry will double in the next 25 years unless new sustainable policies are developed.  What kind of “leadership” is that? If Titanic-style corporations like Walmart can turn themselves on a relative dime and commit to a sustainable path, couldn’t our leaders even acknowledge that a debate might be necessary when they issue these forecasts? Shouldn’t they exercise leadership by stimulating that debate – not resisting it or pretending that the problem might simply go away?

What is also worrying is that no mention was made of the other feature of tourism growth that can cause so much personal havoc and hardship and that is the volatility of demand. The gently rising slope of the demand curves as shown in this slide provides a false sense of security and comfort – there’s an aura of stability and certainty conveyed that bears no relation to reality.

When we tell it like it is and provide data on what has happened in the past, we get a different picture. The headline to the next  chart is moderately reassuring “growth in tourism will continue but at a more moderate pace” but distracts from the reality of wild gyrations in tourism demand experienced over the past 40 years.

As tourism is the tail on the end of many economic dogs, it is subject to huge whip saw effects from specific events – be they natural hazards, terrorist acts, epidemics, or financial meltdowns and they are impossible to predict.  It is this volatility that undermines any benefit that could accrue from the growth in demand and causes the greatest hardship in so many destinations.  Given the convergence of such forces as climate change, resource depletion, population growth, water shortages, national and personal debt levels we can expect that demand will continue to oscillate with increasing frequency and intensity. Given that 95-99% of businesses engaged in tourism are small and independently owned, the real issue of the next decade for them won’t be growth but survival.

“In a time of universal deceit, telling the truth is a
revolutionary act.”
George Orwell

I am not anti tourism; only anti thoughtless, careless tourism whose proponents avoid counting and minimizing its costs. That’s what Conscious Travel is all about – not the end of tourism but the shift to the kind of tourism we can all be proud of; the kind of tourism that sustains decent livelihoods year after year while enriching and enlivening local cultures and restoring local ecosystems.

It’s the kind of tourism that is driven by a Higher Purpose than simply making money. So what is the point of tourism? Here are some thoughts a deeper purpose of tourism that give it meaning and that attract people to do extraordinary things:

This kind of tourism can only be created  if we develop a degree of honesty and self-criticism that George Orwell would have recognized as being revolutionary.

I don’t pretend to have all the answers. If I did, I’d be rich and famous. But I am prepared to ask some of the right questions simply because I KNOW the answers lie within our own community (not industry). If you CARE at all – and I believe THE issue is all about caring (see here) then you’ll comment, subscribe and encourage others to join the discussion…

See also:

Good Morning Tourism: Time for Your Wake Up Call – Part One

Good Morning Tourism: Time fr Your Wake Up Call – Part Two

Conscious Host @ Work

2 Responses to “Do UNWTO Figures Mislead?”

  1. Spot on Anna! Your integrity comes shining through, yet again 🙂



  1. Walking the halls of hope and despair, WTM 2014 | Conscious.Travel - November 13, 2014

    […] DO UNWTO Figues mislead? […]


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