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UN Tourism Chief: Asia Leads Global Tourism Recovery

The head of the United Nations World Tourism Organization, Taleb Rifai, says global tourism is recovering, led by fast growth in Asia though tourism in Europe is still down.

Despite concerns of a wavering world economy, experts in the tourism industry say people across the globe are spending time and money on travel.

The U.N.'s World Tourism Organization predicts four percent growth in global tourism this year, in line with the industry's average growth over the past 15 years.

The secretary-general of the agency, Taleb Rifai, said Friday this shows that tourism has more or less recovered from the global financial crisis.

"We have just closed in on the results of the first four months of 2010 globally and we're up seven percent growth as compared to 2009," he said. "While 2009 was one of the worst years that we have ever seen in the last six decades, we were down four percent. So this rebound has been stronger and faster than we thought. And, the important thing also is that this recovery is being basically driven and led by Asia."

Rifai says international tourism arrivals to Asia from January to April were up 12 percent while the world average was seven percent.

While tourism in Asia is climbing back to normal, in Europe there is almost no growth.

Rifai says large public deficits are tempting governments to impose taxes that discourage tourists from choosing European vacations.

The U.N. tourism chief Friday visited Bangkok's Ratchaprasong shopping and hotel district.

The upscale shopping area is still recovering from weeks of occupation by thousands of anti-government protesters. The military pushed out the demonstrators in May.

The demonstration forced businesses in the area to shut down, costing hundreds of millions of dollars in lost revenue. Tourism dropped rapidly during the protests.

Clashes between protesters and soldiers left 90 people dead and angry protesters set fire to more than 30 buildings, including a major shopping center at Ratchaprasong.

Rifai says Thailand is resilient and tourism is already bouncing back.

"No matter what, tourism is the future of Thailand. And, it's very important to connect the two things together, that Thailand is back in business, Bangkok is back in business and tourism is our business," he said.

Rifai says it will take a few months before it is clear that Thailand's tourism has recovered. And political unrest, he acknowledges, could return.

Despite that, he says Thailand remains one of the most popular destinations for European tourists.