The One Billionth Tourist

Today, for the one billionth time this year, yet another tourist crossed an international border. That’s a historic milestone. According to the United Nations World Tourism Organization, 2012 will mark the first year in history to register more than a billion international arrivals. UNWTO picked Dec. 13 as the most likely day for the moment to have occurred.

Dale Sheppard-Floyd of the U.K. in Madrid. Photo, UNWTO.

They even picked a symbolic billionth tourist: One Dale Sheppard-Floyd from the United Kingdom, who arrived today in Madrid, conveniently home to UNWTO’s headquarters. The presumably surprised Mrs. Sheppard-Floyd expressed her hope that Spain will emerge from its economic crisis. At least her visit will add a few British pounds to Spanish coffers.

Symbolism aside, the one-billion mark is a classic case of good-news, bad-news. And you have a role to play.

Good news, because tourism is beneficial for economies, for public education, for spiritual renewal, for world peace generally, and often for conservation and preservation.

Bad news, because irresponsible tourism can ruin places, corrupt cultures, scar landscapes, pollute air and water, degrade scenery, siphon revenues away from local people, and overcrowd charming towns and fragile historic sites.

The icon UNWTO chose for the One Billionth is a backpacking traveler with a smart phone. Ironic that a quick glance might mistake hm for an infantryman with a smoking pistol. The invading hordes!

International tourism growth since World War II. Chart courtesy UNWTO.

What’s more, their graphic is not proportional. The 2012 traffic bar should be even taller. It’s 40 times that of 1950. Add to the trans-border total the more frequent domestic trips within countries, and the figure jumps five or six times higher, says UNWTO.

Yet the places that all these people are visiting—the monuments, the beaches, the historic sites, the natural parks—have stayed the same size. That means destinations have crowd-management issues. And when we travel ourselves, we have self-management issues.

Since UNWTO’s primary membership is national tourist bureaus and ministries, it often leans toward boosterism. So it’s to the organization’s credit that it chose to mark this milestone with a campaign to encourage responsible behavior by the traveling multitudes—i.e, us. They call it One Billion Tourists: One Billion Opportunities.

As a public relations device to promote it, UNWTO asked travelers to vote on five responsible travel tips:

  • Respect local culture.
  • Preserve heritage.
  • Buy local.
  • Save energy.
  • Use public transport.

“Buying local” won as most popular, with “respecting local culture” as a close second. Of course, it’s good to practice all five. To the winner I add my own variation:

  • Support the businesses that support the place.

You’ll have a richer trip. The local innkeeper who loves to talk about town history, the restaurant that offers a traditional dish with local ingredients, the unique clothing or craft shop that’s not an international franchise—these are the things travel memories are made of.

They are part of the good-news column. Well-executed tourism helps these businesses exist, and their existence can enrich the local community as well.

So I hope Mrs. Sheppard-Floyd does buy local—and adds a great travel memory by doing so.

But it’s not just up to us visitors. Tourism responsibility also falls to travel companies, to destination governments, and to local citizens. Together we can ensure that this historic milestone in global tourism does not become a historic millstone around our collective necks.

In 2020, UNWTO forecasts 1.6 billion international arrivals. Plan for it.

Changing Planet

Meet the Author
National Geographic Fellow Emeritus; Founding Director, Nat Geo Center for Sustainable Destinations; former Geotourism Editor, National Geographic Traveler; CEO, Destination Stewardship Center; President, Focus on Places LLC