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Madrid (AFP) Sept 26, 2012
Global tourism has adapted well to the economic crisis, with international arrivals expected to rise by nearly four percent this year, the head of the UN World Tourism Organisation told AFP.
But Taleb Rifai, secretary general of the United Nations World Tourism Organisation, warned that travel taxes, particularly against the aviation industry, risked "severely affecting" that recovery.
Tourism figures worldwide were hit hard by the 2008 global financial crisis, with the rise in international arrivals that year slowing to 2.1 percent after having jumped 6.6 percent in the previous year.
Arrivals plunged by 3.8 percent in 2009, its worst performance in 60 years, as the outbreak of the swine flu virus helped persuade cash-strapped consumers to stay home.
But international tourism arrivals bounced back the following year, rising 6.6 percent in 2010 and by 5.0 percent in 2011 even though global economic crisis had not yet ended.
"The only good news that is coming from the economy is coming from tourism," Rifai told AFP in an interview at the UNWTO's headquarters in Madrid.
"The tourism sector, against all odds, managed to adjust itself to the crisis. It's a very flexible industry," said the Jordanian executive.
But Rifai also warned: "Travel taxes are becoming a real issue for us.
"We are worried about the aviation industry because most of the taxes that are being placed on tourism now are on transport, and particularly aviation.
"It's becoming really alarming.
"We are concerned that the ability of people to fly and the competitiveness of this sector will become severely affected by that. Especially when there are still very serious possibilities of a major hike in oil prices.
"It's an issue that mainly affects traffic from Europe but after all 52 to 55 percent of world travellers are coming out of Europe. It's a global issue."
This year however, the figures are encouraging.
The number of international tourist arrivals worldwide grew by 5.0 percent during the first half of 2012 to 467 million, with the Asia-Pacific region posting the strongest gains.
"We are still expecting that we will close this year with (a rise in international tourist arrivals) at between 3.0 and 4.0 percent. I think it will be close to 4.0 percent now," said Rifai.
"That would mean that we would be in November or December hitting the historic figure of one billion international tourists."
Economic turbulence "will change the way to travel. People will look for cheaper deals -- but people will still travel."
Travel had become a part of people's lifestyle, he explained. "You can't give it up."
The Asia-Pacific region posted an 8.0 percent rise in international tourist arrivals during the first half of the year, as visitors returned to Japan a year after a tsunami and earthquake devastated parts of the country.
Europe, the most visited destination in the world, saw visitor numbers rise by 4.0 percent between January and June, with many destinations in Central and Eastern Europe posting double-digit growth.
Visitors were also returning to Egypt and Tunisia after the turmoil of the Arab spring frightened off foreigners last year, which helped fuel a rise of 7.0 percent in the number of arrivals in Africa.
"There is a clear recovery in Egypt and in Tunisia," said Rifai.
"Tourism is doing well in general, and it's probably one of the few areas that can provide some stimulus and some health to the world economy, particularly when it comes to jobs.
"With high rates of unemployment now, we can't afford to lose the jobs that tourism is providing."
The tourism sector accounts for some 235 million jobs worldwide and is responsible for around 5.0 percent of global gross domestic product, according to World Tourism Organisation figures.
"Our call, our message to world leaders is to use the potential of tourism in a better way because we don't see this happening yet," said Rifai.
The UNWTO describes itself as the United Nations agency responsible for promoting "responsible, sustainable and universally accessible tourism."
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