It was reckoned by the United Nations World Tourism Organization (UNWTO) that on Dec. 13, for the first time, 1 billion people had crossed international borders within a single calendar year.
A staggering amount of product is required to support that many travelers, from air seats to hotels and resorts, cruise ships and river vessels, motorcoaches and rental cars. Visitors must be fed and entertained, and more than a few will want to shop.
An increasingly complex infrastructure has evolved to support all these arrivals: air traffic control systems, visa and security protocols, technology that enables bookings, conservation efforts to preserve natural attractions. Roads and rail systems must be maintained and expanded. Travel advisers and tourism workers and management must be recruited and trained.
Additional connective tissue in the global travel industry complex can be found in layer upon layer of policy, regulation and taxation. Many of these layers are imposed independently and unilaterally by national, regional, state and municipal bodies. But increasingly they are structured at international forums and complemented (or challenged) by private industry groups and associations that formulate standards, guidelines and recommendations.
All of this is done within an industry that traditionally self-identifies more strongly with particular segments (air, hospitality, tour) or broader groupings (transportation, shipping, attractions) than with the broad umbrella of travel and tourism.
And as complex as this might sound for 1 billion travelers, Goldman Sachs analysts predict that by 2030, 2 billion more people will be elevated to middle-class status in China alone, significantly increasing both the challenges and opportunities for anyone involved in the mosaic of business and governmental activity that comprise the global travel industry.
Acting on a world stage
The two most prominent groups that look at the high-level issues facing international travel and tourism are the U.N. World Tourism Organization, a nongovernmental organization affiliated with the U.N., and the World Travel & Tourism Council (WTTC), composed of about 100 CEOs of the world's largest travel multinational companies.
The two groups began working together closely about three years ago, and a focus on both the fruits of their labor and unresolved issues form the agenda of the 13th WTTC Global Summit, to be held April 9 and 10 in Abu Dhabi.
The breadth, depth and complexity of global issues are reflected not only in the number of speakers on the program -- 48 -- but by who those speakers are.
As might be expected, the list contains industry analysts, leaders of large industry organizations, tourism ministers and CEOs of major travel agencies, hotel groups, airlines, GDSs, tour operations and cruise lines.
But the list also contains the "global chief customer officer" of Coca-Cola, an Oxford professor who specializes in a broad range of future-facing issues and former U.S. president Bill Clinton.
"We'll be taking a good look at the outside world first," said WTTC CEO David Scowsill. "To meet the challenges facing travel and tourism, we need first to understand the world in all its aspects, its trends and patterns. We need to understand what consumers are going to look like in five to 10 years."
The invitation to Clinton was issued after he and Scowsill both participated in a fact-finding mission to Haiti designed to ultimately help revive that country's economy. Tourism was on the former president's mind on that trip, and his Clinton Foundation is increasingly focusing on the travel industry as a means to assist countries whose potential has not been realized.
"The degree of synergy between what [the foundation] wants to do and where we are headed became obvious," Scowsill said. "As a direct result, [Clinton] agreed to come to Abu Dhabi and share his thoughts about the industry."
In the same session as the former president's keynote speech, 10 industry CEOs will each speak for two minutes about what they see as the future of travel and tourism.
One of those will be Michael Batt, chairman of Travel Leaders, whose brands collectively represent about one-third of all U.S. travel agencies.
In a phone interview, Batt acknowledged that the macro issues of global travel and tourism might not seem to be of immediate concern to a travel agency owner focused on business and clients, but he believes the issues before the WTTC will have a strong impact on the travel products, experiences and satisfaction levels that an agency's clients will face in the future.
Batt said he is still putting together exactly what he will say in his 120 seconds, but "clearly infrastructure is an issue. Air traffic control is an issue. And taxation."
As regards taxation, "politicians see [the travel industry] as a sitting duck, because they can levy taxes on visitors, and visitors don't vote," Batt said. "It goes to ridiculous levels, taxing car renters to pay for local sports stadiums.
"But it's so short-sighted. They can ruin an industry, and not even think about the local workers who will be affected, the airport employees, hotel employees, taxi drivers and restaurant workers."
Infrastructure and taxation are key elements within two of the three explicitly stated WTTC priorities: "policies for growth" and "connectivity." The third priority is "freedom for travel," which is primarily concerned with visa reform and facilitation. (Click here or on the image, right, for a larger view of a chart of worldwide visitor spending and tourist arrivals.)
But the three priorities are interrelated, Scowsill said: "Connectivity has a strong focus on the better utilization of technology, which loops back into visas."
The geography of shifting fortunes
Another travel executive who was asked to speak about issues related to the future of his sector is Arne Sorenson, CEO of Marriott International.
Sorenson has identified multiple trends that all stem from the same underlying cause: the shift of economic activity and growth from the developed world to the developing world.
"I don't mean to suggest that the U.S. won't continue to grow," Sorenson said in a phone interview. "But what we've seen is a shift to Brazil, Russia, India and China. But not only the BRIC nations: all of Central and South America, Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand. You continue to see growth in Korea and significant parts of sub-Saharan Africa. The economic growth in these places is leading to an extraordinary expansion of the middle class."
Most people look at per-capita income to define middle class, Sorenson said, "but you could also look in terms of whether or not there is disposable income and where it goes. I wouldn't pretend to be unbiased, but in our view, once you've got housing, food and education, you pretty quickly get to the place where travel and desire to see the world becomes the next acquisition. It's a huge opportunity for our industry and for those destinations that are most compelling."
'Explosion' in luxury travel
The opportunities extend beyond the middle-class dynamic, he continued. There is an "explosion" at the high end, looking at luxury goods, travel and hotels.
One result that Sorenson finds particularly inspiring is the opportunity for job development. (Click here or on the image, right, for a view of a chart of the worldwide contribution of travel and tourism to employment.)
Globally, he said, "600 million jobs will be created in the next five years. That's a number that's too big to be meaningful. But, for instance, we'll be opening hotels in Accra [Ghana] and Kigali [Rwanda] in the next 12 months, and we already have women in training.
"There are the types of opportunities that only a few years ago could barely be dreamed of. Whether there or in Bangladesh or Myanmar or Angola or Kenya or Ethiopia, we have hotels under way which reflect the shift in economic growth and are creating jobs that are really compelling."
A global crystal ball
Ian Goldin, an Oxford University professor who works on future issues (he eschews the label "futurist"), will focus on what's to come over the next 10 years via demographic, economic and technical megatrends, framed in the context of the rapid expansion of globalization and taking into account directional indicators, from fashion to ideology.
One trend that has particular application to the travel industry is hyperconnectivity, the ways in which people are physically and virtually connected.
"People all over the world increasingly are seeing and experiencing similar sorts of things," Goldin said when discussing his presentation. "You now have the potential to easily compare things across the world. Whether you're going to stay in a hotel in Shanghai or Las Vegas, your anticipation of the experience is influenced by what you have already experienced or seen on videos."
Mobile devices, he said, will be thousands of times more powerful, yet no more costly. This will result in many changes in the industry, not least of which will be in service areas.
Nanotechnology will bring new types of controls and abilities, but at the molecular level.
Further, the implications of aging populations across the world will influence who will be traveling and the designs of facilities, while the "collapse of fertility," and fewer young people, will affect labor and employment markets, he said.
Like Sorenson, Goldin believes that the acceleration of emerging markets will have a powerful impact in shaping the future, with emerging markets growing at three to four times the rate of the U.S., Europe and Japan. Within 10 years, emerging markets will account for half of the world economy and 80% of economic growth. (Click here or on the image, right, for a view of a chart of the worldwide contribution of travel and tourism to GDP.)
Goldin also said he would examine some of the risks facing the industry, cyberattacks and pandemics among them.
"It's the other side of the same phenomena we see as opportunities," he said.
It's important, he said, that the industry "harvest the opportunities" the future brings, and he said he would offer some prescriptive observations about what the industry and government can do in this regard.
Emirates at the crossroad
In both literal and symbolic terms, Abu Dhabi, the summit's host, is perfectly positioned to benefit from the shifting economic and demographic trends. It's the capital of the oil-rich United Arab Emirates and, similar to its neighboring emirate Dubai, its geographic location is near-perfect to become a global transportation hub: It's situated between most of Asia to the east and Africa, Europe and North and South America to the west.
Its 7-year-old airline, Etihad Airways, has built a network that includes direct service to 86 passenger and cargo destinations around the globe, with 71 aircraft. But its ambitions can perhaps be best surmised from the 100 additional planes it now has on order (10 are for Airbus A380s, the world's largest passenger aircraft).
In an email interview, Etihad CEO James Hogan said the airline's 40 "codeshare agreements and equity acquisitions are intended to create a global footprint and the scale to compete on a global playing field."
Abu Dhabi is actively trying to exploit its geo-coordinates and wealth to be an important player not only in global transport but in business, culture, sports and leisure travel.
To attract tourism, the emirate is nearing completion on a spectacular cultural district that will include branches of the Louvre and Guggenheim museums and a performing arts complex, each designed by an internationally renowned architect.
Hogan said he believes that travel and tourism will be "a major contributor to the rise of Abu Dhabi and its emerging role on the global stage."
Hosting the WTTC summit there, he added, will "showcase the emirate's world-class infrastructure and attractions," and he hopes it "will provide further stimulus for travel and tourism growth."
WTTC's Scowsill said that although the conference will be primarily focused on the future, it will also summarize recent progress.
"Look at what we've done in the past 18 months," he said. "We got travel and tourism on the agenda of the G20 meeting in Los Cabos, presenting research showing the economic impact of freeing up visa processes."
The grand tour
He said that he and Taleb Rifai, secretary-general of the UNWTO, have visited 44 heads of state together to demonstrate the importance of travel and tourism to their economies.
"We'd have 30-minute discussions with them, telling them five things they should know," Scowsill said. "It has had a huge impact. For a lot of leaders, it was the first time they understood the role travel and tourism plays in jobs and [gross domestic product] growth for their countries."
Many of these discussions hinged on comparative research.
"When we sat with the prime minister of Japan and showed him that travel and tourism was bigger than his auto industry, he was visibly surprised," Scowsill said.
In addition to interest in the content of the summit program, he said, "most of the CEOs, presidents and chairmen also want to network and do business with colleagues around the world, and not necessarily just the ones in their sector."
On a related note, one message Scowsill hopes to leave with delegates is the need to coordinate across sectors, not just for business but when speaking to governments.
"Visas, growth and jobs cut across the interests of everyone in the industry," he said. "When we visit governments, we need to make it clear we're all working from the same hymn sheet."
Email Arnie Weissmann at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter.