A billion people on the move: tourism becomes truly global

Britain will need more than its heritage to stay competitive and keep visitor numbers growing

Welcome to paradise. Plutocrats chat politely over tea as the tinkle of piano music wafts over. From this marble and steel atrium, they look out over turquoise waters where sand banks shimmer into the distance and yachts tack lazily by. It is almost possible to smell the money.

This is Abu Dhabi, once an unremarkable oil-rich city, the capital of the United Arab Emirates. Unremarkable, at least, until the ruler, Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan, decided to put his petrodollars to good use and make the city over as a tourism and culture hub by 2030.

The push explains the succession of luxury hotels that line the baking-hot corniche, including the Jumeirah at Etihad Towers which stands like five shiny razor clams jabbed into the shoreline. Not only a totem designed to attract the über-rich, it also symbolises the confidence which tourist chiefs have that their industry can drive economic growth in new markets.

Unlike banking or manufacturing, this is an industry that is feeling rather pleased with itself at the moment. Last year, for the first time, more than one billion travellers crossed international borders, despite economic woes hitting much of the globe. The question that occupied delegates at last week's World Travel & Tourism Council summit in Abu Dhabi was: where does the next billion come from? And as countries from China to Saudi Arabia switch on to tourism as a source of prosperity – as well as sending increasing numbers of their own citizens abroad – how can Britain hold its own?

The figures make interesting reading for governments on the hunt for new sources of revenue and job creation. From contributing $6.6trn (£4.3trn) to global GDP last year, travel and tourism is predicted to be worth $10.5trn by 2023, according to the WTTC. Not bad for a sector that had grown accustomed to not being taken seriously by political leaders.

"Finally governments are listening – that is so important," says Gerald Lawless, the boss of the Jumeirah Group. To achieve those lofty forecasts, companies will create an additional 70 million jobs over the decade, with two-thirds of those being in Asia.

Tourism also illustrates which way the global growth is swinging. By 2023, China will become the largest travel and tourism market in terms of GDP and outbound travellers, eclipsing the US. It creates huge opportunities, as well as challenges in ensuring regions develop what big-spenders want to see, as well as marketing the overall package.

Last year, Britain should have seen a record number of inbound Chinese visitors, overtaking a record 149,000 in 2011, but it can't be complacent and still lags behind its continental neighbours.

"There is the long-haul curiosity factor that is really about Europe," says Desiree Boller, the chief executive of Value Retail, whose Bicester Village designer shopping outlet near Oxford has Chinese tourists flocking in for brands from Prada to Paul Smith. "Europe represents a heritage of thousands of years. Yes, their number-one priority is to shop but there is so much more today that the Chinese want to discover."

Many hotels think that by putting congee on the breakfast menu they have done their bit. But Pansy Ho, whose Shun Tak Holdings is a key property owner in Macau, China's casino capital, which has designs to broaden its appeal beyond gambling, thinks the broad-brush approach is risky for anyone who wants to woo the next wave of tourists. "We don't want to stereotype the Chinese visitors," she says. "We should embrace them with an open mind. Because China is so big, it is not easily branded as one single homogenous culture."

The debate over making it easier for travellers to come to Britain is raging, especially after Theresa May, the Home Secretary, took closer control over the UK Border Agency. Visas are the second biggest issue after safety for Asian travellers, according to Hiromi Tagawa, the boss of JTB, the region's top travel agency. At the moment, thanks to the Schengen agreement, Chinese visitors can get access to 26 European countries for less than the price of a UK visa.

Willie Walsh, the chief executive of IAG, the owner of British Airways, says: "The UK needs to recognise it is losing ground at a very significant pace and more importantly, it is risking retaliation. Those countries which have traditionally made it easy for Britons to get access are getting fed up and saying if you are going to make it difficult for our citizens we are going to start doing the same."

Hotel bosses also hit out at Britain's rising air passenger duty, which costs a family of four flying economy to Florida £268 in air taxes. Arne Sorenson, the head of Marriott International, whose hotels include Grosvenor House on Park Lane in London, fears the duty, introduced in 1994 but increased again last week, is dissuading outbound travellers.

"I think it is classic old world, short-term politics," he says. "We can tax our visitors because they don't vote – but you'll have fewer visitors and therefore less income to tax."

Bosses believe future tourists will swell the ranks at big-ticket attractions such as the Eiffel Tower and Buckingham Palace in the established global cities like Paris, London and New York. In part, that depends on them remaining accessible and cost effective. In addition, experts see shorter breaks developing for the Chinese, whose vacation time is regimented by national holidays such as Golden Week. But it doesn't mean Britain should be complacent, especially if it wants international travellers to roam outside London.

Meanwhile, as the old world ponders how to attract this new wave of travellers, Abu Dhabi is confident. "Some saw us as dreamers, others as overly ambitious and under-developed," says Mubarak Al Muhairi, the director general of the city's tourist authority, who welcomed speakers including the former US president Bill Clinton and the Hollywood actress turned green activist Darryl Hannah to the summit.

While there, they could marvel at new hotels such as the Venetian-style Ritz-Carlton, where an opera singer serenades guests at sundown. There is also the Saadiyat Island project, a cultural quarter that will eventually feature the Gulf's version of the Guggenheim museum and the Louvre.

"An event like this is fantastic because the world doesn't really know Abu Dhabi and this brings them here," says James Hogan, the chief executive of Etihad Airways. "It's got the beaches and the restaurants and the marina. You can do as much as you can do in Dubai."

That might be true, but whether Abu Dhabi has found the blueprint to shake up the tourist world remains to be seen. What cities such as this can't do is strip the great European capitals of their heritage, only persuade global travellers that they should be trying something new.

The Chinese are coming... maybe

Last year 82 million Chinese travelled abroad, a 17 per cent rise according to the China Tourism Academy. This made it the fourth largest outbound market in the world. China will overtake America as the largest tourist nation by 2023, World Travel & Tourism Council data suggests.

More than two-thirds of travellers go to Hong Kong or Macau, the former Portuguese colony that has become the world’s gambling capital.

In 2011, Chinese tourists to Britain numbered 149,000, compared with 1.1 million going to France and 637,000 to Germany, according to figures from the World Tourism Organisation. Visitors from China spend £1,688 per visit, 200 per cent more than the average visitor.

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