MADRID, Jan. 16 -- With just under a week before the FITUR international tourism exhibition's opening in the Spanish capital city, Taleb Rifai, secretary general of the United Nations World Tourism Organization (UNWTO), has offered an interview with Xinhua to discuss key aspects of world tourism in 2013, another excellent year for the industry.
Following are the questions (Q) raised by Xinhua and answers (A) given by Rifai:
Q: In 2012, the number of international tourist arrivals worldwide passed a record 1 billion mark. How about the industry's performance in 2013?
A: Surprisingly, and it has even surpassed our own expectations. We forecast a growth in international tourist arrivals globally between 3 percent and 4 percent in 2013.
Towards the end of 2013, (We will be closing all the data in a few days) we are now registering a 5 percent growth, in spite of all economic difficulties and even in continents that were experiencing difficulties, such as Europe, where international tourist arrivals grew at the world average of 5 percent.
We expect that the trend will continue into 2014. Maybe the growth will be slightly more modest, but the upward trend to continue.
Q: Europe did well, but which was the strongest performing region in 2013?
A: Asia was the number one performer. International tourist arrivals in Asia grew by more than 6 percent and it had been expected that Asia would be the leading continent. Meanwhile, Africa continued its trend of growth at 4.5 percent to 5 percent and the Americas were a little bit below world average. But in general the whole world moved forward.
Q: China's growth as a tourist destination and as a source market continues to look strong over the years. How did China perform last year?
A: China in 2012 became the number one source market of the world, surpassing Germany which had been number one for a long rime. In 2013 we saw Chinese tourists being sought and looked at from all over the world. Every destination I visit, every destination I contact says "please help us and tell us how we attract the Chinese market,'" so that growth is going to continue. In the first nine months of 2013, there was double digit growth in the outbound market and we expect that to continue as China will easily pass the 90 million outbound tourist mark, which represents a considerable amount of growth in 2013.
As a destination, China was affected by the economic difficulties of Europe and America and that did affect the vitality of the Chinese tourist market, but there was a tremendous growth in China's domestic market thanks to the strategy for leisure and tourism in China, which encourages people to take more days leave and to travel on their days of leave. This has created tremendous energy and activity and it definitely compensated for the loss of activity caused by the difficult European situation.
Q: We see the Chinese tourists in the rest of the world are valued because they are high-quality tourists, who spend a lot of money. Are countries adapting well to welcome their Chinese visitors?
A: The Chinese tourist is definitely a high-quality tourist, but we should be very careful, The Chinese tourist is different in some aspects, but they are not very different in many aspects. They seek to see new things and sometimes if you tailor your product too much to make it look like this is very Chinese, we are actually defeating the purpose of their visit.
You travel from your country because you want to see something new, something different and experience something different. It would be good, however, to have more people who speak Chinese, and to have more guidebooks in Chinese, etc.
Q: It is now much easier for people to cross borders from one country to another and to get tourist visas. It that one reason for the international tourist arrivals' spike in recent years?
A: I think we have made great progress in that regard in the last two years. We have a study which showed that in 2012, 72 percent to 75 percent of the people of the world needed to get visas prior to their departure from one place to another. That is now down to between 61 percent and 62 percent. But it is still a lot, when you imagine 60 percent of the world cannot go to another country without prior authorization. It is too much and too complicated.
Of course it is those countries' duty to protect their borders, but we can do that in ways that are not damaging. If we make it too complicated, we are hurting ourselves and we are hurting others.
Q: How can they do that?
A: Electronic visas, group visas...visas upon arrival. There are many ways you could improve things: improve your website information, make it easier to apply electronically; increase your consulates, and increase places where you can get visas.
Some countries are outsourcing visas to private companies, which are authorized to grant visas in accordance to the conditions. There are many ways now you could make it easier and we need to move in that direction.
Q: The UNWTO is Madrid-headquartered and it looks as if Spain has enjoyed a record breaking year in terms of visitor numbers. What have the Spanish done right?
A: The tourism sector in Spain passed through a difficult time in the last two years, but in 2013 it learned the lessons and adjusted itself. It was flexible and innovative. It repositioned itself in such a way that it became the lifter of other economic sector and the stimulator of those sectors.
The sector has grown by over 5 percent and directly generates around a million jobs with around 2.9 millions indirectly and that is what Spain needs. I expect that 2014 will be a very good year for Spain as it has got out of the bottleneck and it's embarking on a new era.
Q: We have seen in Spain an increasing number of tourists are now looking beyond the attractions of sun, sea and sand to other more "cultural" attractions. Are tourists as a whole becoming more sophisticated in their demands?
A: There are two points here: firstly, this is proof of how intelligent, innovative, flexible and adjustable the private section is. They realized they cannot put all of their efforts on sun and beach. They have put strength in land, in the pueblos, in the culture, the gastronomy, the wine routes... so when they shifted into that, they were able to make up for the oversupply which is at the beach and the coastal areas.
Secondly, this is an international trend, not just in Spain. Tourists are interested in a global experience, and they want sun and beach plus other things. They want to take their family to an amusement park or a museum, or rent a car one day and drive to the village and enjoy a meal... It's consistent with the trends.