To anyone who has battled the crowds in Venice, Barcelona or Dubrovnik in recent years, the following fact will come as no surprise: tourists have never been more numerous. A record 1.5 billion overseas trips were made by travellers last year, according to the latest statistics from the United Nations World Tourism Organisation (UNWTO); that represents an increase of four per cent on 2018 – and up from around 900m a decade ago.
It seems the highly publicised "flight-shaming" movement hasn't had much of an impact, although that four per cent rate of growth is down from six per cent in 2018 and seven per cent in 2017. However, UNWTO suggested that "uncertainty surrounding Brexit, geopolitical and trade tensions, and the global economic slowdown" – rather than climate fears – were the key factors.
The world's most visited nation is still France. Having welcomed 89.4 million in 2018, it broke the 90 million barrier in 2019, with a 0.9 per cent rise in overseas arrivals. Spain, its closest rival, also saw modest growth – of 1.2 per cent – pushing it from 82.8 million to 83.8 million visitors.
But numerous countries bucked the global trend, registering remarkable rises and equally dramatic drops. For some destinations, statistics for 2019 are incomplete – the UK, for example, has so far only returned figures for the first nine months of the year – but they still offer a good indication of which places are on the up, and which are being snubbed.
Australia's latest tourism figures (up to November 2019) show arrivals up 2.9 per cent on the previous year, but these numbers may drop after the bushfires began making international headlines.
The emergence of Central Asia
Are the "stans" of Central Asia experiencing a moment? It would seem so. Arrivals are up 27.3 per cent in Uzbekistan, 10 per cent in Kazakhstan, and 11.4 per cent in Azerbaijan.
The trend is a testament to the benefits of cutting red tape. Uzbekistan, for example, introduced visa-free entry for stays of up to 30 days, for citizens of 45 countries, including Australia, a year ago, while Kazakhstan has made similar strides to make access easier. It could also be down to publicity. The region has featured in numerous newspapers and travel magazines (including Traveller) in recent years and starred in Joanna Lumley's Silk Road Adventure in late 2018.
The Caribbean is back
Hurricanes Irma in September 2017 wreaked havoc across the Leeward Islands, putting holidays off the menu for months. Last year, however, the Caribbean made a comeback. Anguilla (+96.8 per cent), St Maarten (+91 per cent), Dominica (+56 per cent) and the US Virgin Islands (+42.8 per cent) all demonstrated that the region is not short on resilience.
The China factor – but what will 2020 hold in store?
The rise of the Chinese traveller has been well documented. In 2000 the country's vast population made just 10.5 million overseas trips. Now it's more than 150 million. This phenomenon has benefited a handful of countries more than most – namely, those within striking distance of China. Since 2010, Japan has been the world's fastest growing major travel destination, while last year South Korea (+14.4 per cent), Vietnam (+16.2 per cent), the Philippines (+15.1 per cent), Myanmar (+40.2 per cent) and Laos (+15.7) all saw big increases.
What 2020 holds in store for these nations remains to be seen. Should the coronavirus shutdown linger for any considerable length of time (millions of Chinese have been told not to travel, while airlines are cancelling flights), then these gains could quickly be lost.
Return to Tunisia – and Egypt
After several years in the wilderness, the UK Foreign Office lifted its ban on travel to Tunisia in 2017. Australia's warning level is "exercise a high degree of caution" - the same level that applies to Indonesia and France. The positive impact continues, with arrivals up 13.6 per cent last year to 9.4m.
Egypt outshone its winter sun rival, registering a 21.1 per cent rise in visitors. With resort town Sharm El Sheikh now back on travel maps, it will be hoping for a similarly impressive 2020.
Turkey's rise and rise
Just 4.8 million visited Turkey back in 1990, making it the world's 20th most visited country. Now it is sixth, with an estimated 52.2 million arrivals in 2019 – up 14 per cent on the previous year. After a fall in visitors in 2016, against a backdrop of terrorism, Turkey's tourism industry is going from strength to strength.
Hong Kong's troubles
It will surprise no-one to learn that the student protests in Hong Kong contributed to an 18.8 per cent drop in visitor numbers last year. A further drop looks certain for 2020 should the protesters return – or, indeed, coronavirus not be stopped (the border between mainland China and Hong Kong is currently closed).
Problems in South America
It was a year of protests for South America, with demonstrations in Chile, Bolivia, Argentina and Ecuador causing concern for holidaymakers. The unrest would appear to have affected tourism, with Ecuador (-14.3 per cent) and Chile (-20.9 per cent) both registering significant falls (figures for Bolivia are not yet available). But there is another factor at play: Argentina's economic problems. Its neighbour to the east has for years been Chile's biggest inbound market, but the spiralling value of the Argentinian peso (it is one of the world's worst performing currencies) has made overseas trips too costly for many. Indeed, another South American country all but unaffected by protests has suffered. Uruguay, also a neighbour of Argentina, saw arrivals fall by 14.3 per cent last year. Argentina, conversely, witnessed a 7.8 per cent increase.
The curious case of Palau
Getting to Palau is no easy feat. The South Pacific island chain has just one international airport, and Australians hoping to go there will face a long way round, having to stop an Asian destination like South Korea or Taiwan first. . So annual arrivals are understandably small – just 116,000 made it in 2018. But that figure was down 5.4 per cent on the previous year, while the first 10 months of 2019 has witnessed a further year-on-year fall of 17.8 per cent.
Why? Because in 2018 the tiny country entered an unlikely diplomatic arm-wrestle with China. In recent years, Palau has developed strong diplomatic ties with Taiwan. But Beijing views Taiwan as a breakaway province of China. Inevitably, therefore, China has sought to punish the idyllic archipelago by ordering tour operators to stop selling holidays there. With China accounting for the majority of annual arrivals in Palau, the impact has been profound.
Six other findings
- Trips to America are down (-1.3 per cent); to the UK they are up (+1.7 per cent)
- China saw arrivals increase (+7.4 per cent); 2020 could be a very different story
- Europe's other top performers included Moldova (+10.9 per cent) and Slovakia (+9.2 per cent)
- Iran had a big year (+27.9 per cent) – that looks certain to change in 2020 given the current political climate
- The Easter bombings were no doubt responsible for Sri Lanka's bad year (-18 per cent)
- The Middle East was the region that saw the most growth (+8 per cent); the Americas the least (+2 per cent)
The world's fastest growing tourist destinations in 2019
- Myanmar 40.2%
- Puerto Rico 31.2%
- Iran 27.9%
- Uzbekistan 27.3%
- Montenegro 21.4%
- Egypt 21.1%
- Vietnam 16.2%
- Philippines 15.1%
- Maldives 14.9%
- Bahamas 14.6%
- Qatar 14.5%
- Armenia 14.4%
- South Korea 14.4%
- Turkey 14.0%
- Bosnia and Herzegovina 13.7%
- Tunisia 13.6%
- Laos 11.5%
- Azerbaijan 11.4%
- Israel 10.5%
- Lithuania 10.1%
- Kazakhstan 10.0%
The Telegraph, London