Which country leads your region in attracting tourists?

Roberto Crotti
Economist, World Economic Forum
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Travel and tourism accounts for one in eleven jobs around the world, and is an engine of economic growth in countries at all stages of development. But which nations are best set up to take advantage? Every two years the World Economic Forum sets out to answer that question, and has recently ranked the travel and tourism competitiveness of 141 economies around the world.

Within each of the five regions surveyed – Europe and Caucasus, Asia, the Middle East and North Africa, Sub-Saharan Africa, and the Americas – there are differing strengths and challenges, and some countries performing better than others. And with 90 individual indicators making up the overall rankings, even the top performers in each region have something to improve.

Scroll through to read more about each region.

A long time exposure shows the Lauterbrunnen valley in the Bernese Oberland, Switzerland. REUTERS/Michael Buholzer A long time exposure shows the Lauterbrunnen valley in the Bernese Oberland, Switzerland. REUTERS/Michael Buholzer

Flags of European Union member states fly in front of the European Parliament building in Strasbourg. REUTERS/Vincent Kessler  Flags of European Union member states fly in front of the European Parliament building in Strasbourg. REUTERS/Vincent Kessler

Europe and Caucasus

Spain leads the overall global rankings for the first time, scoring highly on a wide range of factors from its beautiful heritage sites to conferences for business travelers, infrastructure for tourists and the extent to which the government prioritizes the industry. It is one of the most online-searched countries for tourism and the third most visited country in the world, with over 60 million international arrivals – an increasing proportion of whom are coming from emerging markets such as China, Brazil and Mexico.

Just as Spain leads the national rankings, Europe leads the regional ones, with six countries in the top ten – the others being France, Germany, the United Kingdom, Switzerland and Italy – and with more international arrivals per year than any other region.

Nonetheless, three main divides in Europe remain. First, not all countries make as much use as they could of their cultural attractions and monuments. While the continent’s long history had left some of its countries better endowed than others with such attractions, this does not explain all of the variation in performance on this aspect of the Travel and Tourism Competitiveness Index.

Second, and relatedly, not all countries give the same kind of priority to developing the sector as does Spain. Italy, for example, also has outstanding attractions for tourists, but exhibits a less strategic approach to building on them, and ranks only 8th in the global list. Iceland is one example of a European country successfully investing significant resources in building a stronger tourism brand and leveraging specific niches.

Finally, the business environment varies tremendously—it is generally lean and effective in northern and Central Europe, but less sound in southern and Eastern Europe. Despite leading the global rankings, Spain scores low on areas such as red tape related to construction permits, an inefficient legal framework and rigid labour market.

A strong business environment is essential for enabling a lively tourism sector as several companies active are small companies that are particularly harmed by burdensome regulations. Challenges in building a conducive business environment are often related to a country’s institutional set up and the process of change is long, but success is key to competitiveness and prosperity well beyond the travel and tourism sector.

The Americas

The United States (U.S.) is the highest ranked country in the Americas and 4th globally. It welcomed a record 74 million international visitors in 2014. Collectively, the Americas received almost 170 million visitors in 2013. On average, the region performs quite well in terms of prioritizing the industry, with most countries aware of its potential as a vehicle for development—especially considering the region’s enormous endowment of natural resources.

Factors that explain the regional leadership of the United States include its array of natural, cultural, entertainment and sport attractions, a highly competitive business environment and excellent air transport infrastructure. However, a deeper look into the rankings spotlights some warning signs for the U.S. tourism industry. The sustainability of the county’s natural attractions is being eroded, including through damage to coastal ecosystems and a high proportion of species being endangered. Meanwhile, visa requirements to visit the U.S. rank among the world’s most restrictive, dissuading travellers, although a more open policy towards China recently is a step in the right direction.


Two further areas on which the United States also scores relatively low – ground transportation infrastructure, and safety and security – are among three priority areas across the Latin America region. While several countries in Latin America share difficulties in controlling crime and violence, different root causes require country-specific solutions; as a first step, more accurate indicators are needed to understand the local peculiarities of crime, create information management information systems and evaluate the impact of reform programmes.

On infrastructure, it is understandable given their geography that most countries in Latin America have prioritized air transport, but underdeveloped ground transport still limits people’s ability to move across and within countries. Considering the limited availability of public funds, public-private partnerships could be an effective way to improve infrastructure, but this will be possible only if the third big challenge in the region is met – improving business environment issues such as red tape, corruption and insufficient protection of property rights.

A falcon flies over Incahuasi island, on the edge of the Uyuni salt lake some 600 Kilometers South from La Paz, Bolivia. REUTERS/David MercadoA falcon flies over Incahuasi island, on the edge of the Uyuni salt lake some 600 Kilometers South from La Paz, Bolivia. REUTERS/David Mercado



The Asia-Pacific region is extensive and very heterogeneous, though in general its countries share a high level of commitment to travel and tourism. The region’s most developed areas—including Oceania, the Asian Tigers and Japan—all have world-class transport infrastructure, high degrees of ICT readiness and openness and outstanding human resources.

Australia tops the regional rankings, and comes in 7th place globally, having identified tourism as one of four national investment priorities. The country’s natural attractions range from the Great Barrier Reef to Kangaroo Island, and it also ranks highly for leisure and entertainment tourism and due to its air travel infrastructure.

Elsewhere in the region, it’s countries in South-East Asia which have seen the highest growth in international arrivals recently. This is thanks in part to being highly price competitive and surrounded by other countries where the middle class is expanding rapidly, creating a new class of tourist: surveys show that taking a family holiday is the second highest priority for the emerging middle classes, after a new car and before a flat screen television.

A Shinto shrine gate, with the moon behind it, is seen amidst Japan's largest lake, Lake Biwa, in Takashima, Shiga prefecture in western Japan.             REUTERS/Toru Hanai A Shinto shrine gate, with the moon behind it, is seen amidst Japan’s largest lake, Lake Biwa, in Takashima, Shiga prefecture in western Japan. REUTERS/Toru Hanai
















There are encouraging signs that policymakers in South-East Asia have understood the potential multiplier effect of offering a larger, cross-border set of itinerary options, including through cooperation on visa policy: ASEAN countries have already started to work on pilots to implement visa facilitation.

According to estimates of the UN’s World Tourism Organization, if holders of a visa for one ASEAN country could travel freely in all the others, it could lead to 10 million more visitors.

The main priority in the region is to restrain environmental degradation, as rapid urbanization and industrialization are significantly impacting air quality and forest and ocean ecosystems.


The leader in the Asia region, Australia, has scope for improvement, too – reforms and investments are particularly needed in areas including ground and sea transportation infrastructure, price competitiveness and the rigidity of labour market practices.


Middle East and North Africa

While most countries in the Middle East and North Africa are price-competitive destinations, they can be divided into three groups. Some are not leveraging their travel and tourism capacity at all. Some – such as Egypt, Tunisia, Jordan and Lebanon – have great tourism attractiveness but their international arrivals are being directly or indirectly hit by concerns about terrorism and political instability. And some have created a strong business environment, developed sound infrastructure, grown specific niches and remained relatively safe as destinations.

Tourists visit  the Giza pyramids area, on the outskirts of Cairo, January 16, 2015. REUTERS/Mohamed Abd El Ghany (EGYPT - Tags: SOCIETY TRAVEL) - RTR4LQTGTourists visit the Giza pyramids area, on the outskirts of Cairo. REUTERS/Mohamed Abd El Ghany

Leading the latter group, and the region as a whole, is the United Arab Emirates (UAE), which places 24th globally and welcomed over 10 million tourists in 2013. While the UAE is not rich in natural resources, it has built a unique environment to attract both business and leisure travelers. From Expo 2020 Dubai to the construction of the Louvre and Guggenheim, the UAE is investing heavily in the development of its travel and tourism industry.  Alongside the enabling environment it has created for business and the extremely effective campaigns to brand itself as a destination, the UAE’s advantages include its world-renowned air transport infrastructure, positioning it as a gateway for Europeans to Africa, the Middle East and Asia.

There is still scope for improvement, notably in health and hygiene services and – unlike in most of the rest of the region – there are growing concerns about price competitiveness. Among other regional concerns, unlike in the UAE – which has liberalized its visa policies – low international openness remains a problem in many of the region’s countries, and almost all of them perform poorly on measures of environmental sustainability.


Sub-Saharan Africa    

Travel and tourism has significant potential in Africa, which is rich in both natural and cultural resources, but the industry is still mostly in the early stages of development –and the challenges of attracting more international tourists are connected to the continent’s more general and longstanding development challenges, including infrastructure and health and hygiene. As the region’s average GDP per capita is less than 4,000 PPP USD, the industry’s growth depends heavily on attracting tourists from other continents.

Most countries in the region are aware of tourism’s potential role as an economic opportunity and development catalyst, and have drafted strategic plans. However, the extent to which the actual implementation of those plans is a national priority varies significantly. Leading the way is South Africa, which ranks 48th globally, and tops the African region thanks in part to its relatively good infrastructure compared to neighboring countries. South Africa is still reaping the benefits of the 2010 World Cup, with several sports stadiums that can host significant entertainment events.

South Africa also wins high marks for its efforts to reduce red tape and encourage the development of businesses in the tourism industry.  The quality of the business environment varies widely across the region, with Botswana, Rwanda and Mauritius also among the top performers and Angola, Zimbabwe and Chad among those performing less well. There is still scope for South Africa to improve on labour market issues, however, as well as on health and security.

Regionally, two areas in particular require more international cooperation. For example, while in general the region’s countries score relatively well on environmental sustainability, one specific issues that requires attention is poaching. African governments are already working collaboratively to pool resources and information, deploy rangers across cross-border areas and collaborate with customs and law enforcement in destination markets for products derived from poaching, notably in Asia.

The second issue is international openness. Most countries in the region still have significant travel restrictions in place, and there are even discussions of tightening visa policies in countries such as South Africa. However, some recent policy changes show a will to make progress – for example, the 15 members of Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) have introduced a visa policy that enables free movement of people across member states. Such moves to facilitate travel itineraries that take in more than one country will prove an attraction to international tourists.

A family of elephants graze in the open land during a census at the Amboseli National Park, 290 km (188 miles) southeast of Kenya's capital Nairobi. REUTERS/Thomas A family of elephants graze in the open land during a census at the Amboseli National Park, 290 km (188 miles) southeast of Kenya’s capital Nairobi. REUTERS/Thomas
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