Tourist numbers in Southeast Asia increased by 10% in the first four months of 2018, the largest such growth of any region in the world, according to a recent report by the United Nations World Tourism Organisation (UNWTO)
The steep increase in the region far exceeds the international average of 6% and has put Southeast Asia on course to earn more than the $131.1 billion it took on tourist receipts in 2017. Many other countries in the region saw double-digit growth, including Thailand, Vietnam, Indonesia, the Philippines and Cambodia.
The reason for the rapid growth could be down to countries beginning to understand the importance of tourism as a contributor to socio-economic development, UNWTO Secretary-General Zurab Pololikashvili wrote in an email to Southeast Asia Globe.
“It is also a reflection of growing regional integration and air connectivity…[and] reflects strong demand from Northeast Asian source markets, particularly China and the Republic of Korea, but also from Australia, Russia and Western European markets,” Pololikashvili added.
Vietnam saw the largest increase in the number of arrivals, with a 25.2% growth in the first quarter of the year, compared to the same period last year.
Pololikashvili pointed to visa exemptions for major European markets and a new tourism law that came in last year as possible reasons.
Cambodia’s huge temple complex Angkor Wat continues to attract tourists, and in 2016 contributed $2.4 billion towards the country’s economy. China, meanwhile, overtook Vietnam as the number-one source of visitors to Cambodia, with 1 million Chinese tourists flocking to the Kingdom in 2017.
Thailand has seen a huge increase in tourists in the past decade, and now sits fourth on the list of income garnered from tourist receipts, behind the US, Spain and France, raking in a whopping $57.5 billion in 2017.
Earlier this year, both Thailand and the Philippines temporarily closed off popular tourist sites due to environmental issues. The former imposed a short ban on tourists visiting Maya Bay, made famous by the film The Beach starring Leonardo DiCaprio, while the latter announced a six-month closure of Boracay Island, with Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte describing it as a “cesspool”. It remains to be seen how much impact such closures will have on the flow of visitors to the countries.
The UNTWO report comes with a caveat. It looked at selected countries in the first four months of the year, which is low season in many countries, so it doesn’t necessarily indicate a full-year trend. But with UNTWO’s forecast of just a 4% to 5% increase for 2018 having already been surpassed, the outlook for the current May to August period is one of the most optimistic forecasts the agency has made in a decade.
Pololikashvili stressed that tourism plays an important role worldwide, being “a key driver for many of the Sustainable Development Goals.”
“Regarding tourism’s role in development around the world, tourism accounts for 7% of worldwide exports, one in 11 jobs and 10% of the world’s GDP,” he said. “The tourism sector, if well managed, can foster inclusive economic growth, social inclusiveness and the protection of cultural and natural assets.”