International tourism

International tourism is the tip of the tourism iceberg. It is taken for the full picture, especially by analysts who refer only to data produced by the World Tourism Organisation (UNWTO).

How is the subject approached?

According to the World Tourism Organisation, international tourism is the total of all trips involving a border crossing by non-residents. Thus, nationality is not the reference. A German residing in Paris is an international tourist when he goes to Germany. Often taken as a measure of tourism in the world, this data is therefore partial since it excludes any tourism practised within the same country, or domestic tourism. Beyond the criticisms of the production of statistics on a global scale (Stock et al., 2020; Duhamel, 2018) and which in particular combine all mobilities, several points can be highlighted concerning this so-called international dimension.

Firstly, it is influenced by the boundaries of the states. Given that territories vary greatly in sizes, crossing borders is more or less easy for an inhabitant residing in the centre of the area under consideration. In most countries of the world, more travellers undertake a trip as part of internal or domestic tourism than those who have the opportunity to temporarily leave the territory. The exception are countries with a small area and a high standard of living, such as Switzerland, as well as small island states with a strong footing in tourism globalisation, such as Mauritius, Seychelles, and Maldives.

Secondly, the mobility of non-residents leads them to travel to highly fragmented spaces, characterised by a large number of countries, to cross more borders than in countries of continental dimensions such as Russia, China, and others. Hence, for an equal number of travellers leaving a country, the number of arrivals is higher in a very fragmented continent like Europe than in another continent with fewer countries such as North America, which has only three countries. As a result, in UNWTO publications and in many other publications, Europe is declared as the most tourist intensive continent based on the number of arrivals or overnight stays.

Thirdly, the World Tourism Organisation applies the principle of discontinuity. In particular, tourist flows to scattered islands of overseas France territories (Martinique, Guadeloupe, Réunion in particular) are counted separately. Each remote territory therefore has its entry in the Directory published by the UNWTO. But there are exceptions. For example, the Hawaiian archipelago does not appear on its own and the entries are aggregated with those of the United States. Conversely, Hong Kong and Macau appear separately from Mainland China. Similarly, the Canary Islands or Madeira are not included in the table of contents.

Finally, the mobility of individuals also raises questions. For example, how is the tourism mobilities of people who have migrated counted? Some countries, such as in the Maghreb, include them separately in a specific category that is excluded from the UNWTO data: “Nationals residing abroad” (MRE, les Marocains résidant à l’étranger) (Ill. 1). They represent a significant percentage of entries, especially in Morocco and Tunisia, while the diasporas’ practices, which include (to varying extents, depending on how far back the migration took place) visits “au bled” (to Maghreb roots), explain the low figures of “arrivals in hotels and similar accommodations”, as communicated to the UNWTO.

Ill. 1. International entries into the Maghreb countries in 2018 (source: UNWTO, by: Philippe Violier)

Three basins or the constraint of distance?

The classic approach to international tourism has rightly shown a distribution across three “global basins”: (i) the area consisting of North America, Central America, and the Caribbean; (ii) the Mediterranean basin; and (iii) East Asia (Cazes, 1989). But it treats exchanges as flows between equidistant units. In reality, distance remains a fundamental concept of the spatialisation of tourism on a global scale. Thus, travelling is more intensive between nearby states (Gay and Violier, 2007) showing that tourism, across this distance, is a local mobility. This can be seen in Figure 2 by comparing the origins of travellers to China and France.

Ill. 2. Comparison between international tourist arrivals in China and France in 2019 (source: UNWTO, Yearbook 2021; By: Philippe Violier)

Philippe VIOLIER