Here’s a question for you: how many people are predicted to be international tourists in 2012? That is, how many people in the world crossed a boundary on purpose, voluntarily and did so for the purpose of tourism (rather than as a refugee or immigrant)?  The reason I’m asking is because I came across the answer the other day in a Reuters article.  Which is lucky for you, because now you won’t have to sit in suspense any longer for the answer.

The World Travel and Tourism Council (a London-based council, the members of which includes executives of travel companies) has compiled global travel data including international airport traffic and visa records and has calculated that in 2012 a record 1 billion people will travel across an international border as a tourist. That’s an incredible number! Roughly one in seven people will thus be tourists this year!  We truly live in a time of overall prosperity. (Although, as an aside, I wonder what was the proportion of medieval Europe which crossed different Kingdoms when on pilgrimage? Was it a similar number to one in seven?)

Not only are more people travelling than ever before, but the destinations that people are heading to are more varied than before. The top five destinations in the world contain some classics (but also some surprises). According to the UN World Tourism Organisation they are: Paris, New York, London, Antalya and Singapore.  The two countries that receive the largest numbers of tourists are no surprise either: the USA and France. However, they are joined by some new destinations:

“…experts say much of the explosive growth in tourism has been to countries such as Guatemala, the Dominican Republic, and the Ivory Coast, which were off the world tourism map a decade ago.”

So why are there so many tourists today? Basically because tourism is cheaper nowadays and many more people can afford to be tourists. 

“While evidence of leisure travel can be traced to ancient Babylon, it began to grow swiftly after World War Two. For the US middle class, it became routine after airline deregulation began in the late 1970s when airlines were forced to compete on prices, said David Bojanic, a professor of tourism studies at the University of Texas San Antonio.

The inflation-adjusted cost of a plane ticket from New York to London today is about one-fourth what it was in 1960, he said. Several factors are responsible for the boom in world travel, including prosperity that has lifted tens of millions of people in Asia from poverty into the middle class, whetting their desire to use their new wealth to travel.

The number of people traveling internationally from China, for instance, has jumped from 58 million in 2010 to 72 million this year, Scowsill said.”

So we are living in a world where there are more of us, and we are more mobile (voluntarily) than ever before. Now, this is surely a good thing? In terms of breaking down boundaries between cultures, religions and races, experiencing the “other” on their home turf as a tourist is a useful tool. (Even if as a tourist, you often get an ersatz version of the visited country!) What do you think? Is a world with more tourists a good thing? Or are they just adding to their carbon footprint like the naughty selfish people that they are?

Marcus Roberts is a Senior Researcher at the Maxim Institute in Auckland, New Zealand, and was co-editor of the former MercatorNet blog, Demography is Destiny. Marcus has a background in the law, both...