Tourism Booms as World's Middle Class Goes Trekking

Only a short time ago, Palestinians were throwing rocks at Israeli soldiers on the Gaza strip. Now, El Al Israeli Airlines sells trips to Palestinian-controlled land. The Israeli government is working with Jordan, Morocco, Tunisia, and other Arab nations to promote tourism in the region. Israel's tourism ministry even helps arrange visas so Arabs can visit Bethlehem.

As this unique marketing arrangement illustrates, the global world of tourism, like the Middle East, is in the process of change. Tourists, hungry for new sights and sounds, are starting to trek to areas of the globe that used to be off limits. And, once travelers arrive at their destinations, they are no longer content to bake on the beach. Instead, they want to see archaeological digs, climb mountains, or seek long-lost relatives or ancestors.

These trends, coupled with an expanding global middle class and falling air fares, mean tourism continues to be one of the world's great growth industries.

The World Tourism Organization in Madrid, with 133 member countries and territories, says tourism's expansion over the past five years has outstripped WTO forecasts in every region of the world except Africa and the Americas. Last year, receipts from international tourism, not counting air travel, grew 7.2 percent to $372 billion.

The WTO predicts that tourism will grow 4.1 percent per year through 2000. Recently, the WTO predicted that by 2010, a billion tourists will be traveling annually.

"New competitors are coming into play on a daily basis," says Lalia Rach, dean of the Center for Hospitality, Tourism and Travel Administration at New York University. Among the fast growing new entrants: Vietnam, Jordan, South Africa, the Maldives, Costa Rica, Finland, Hungary, Poland, and the Czech Republic.

The catalyst

The biggest catalyst for the tourism spurt is a global increase in the middle class, especially in Asia and the Pacific, where tourism is booming along at 6 to 7 percent growth per year. With the increased income, there is a greater interest in education. "The educated are more likely to travel," says Ms. Rach.

Potential tourists are also finding it easier to jet around. New airlines are starting up all the time and established airlines are eager to enter burgeoning markets. In addition, airlines always seem to be touting a fare sale. "If you applied inflation to airline tickets - now compared to when Pan Am first started - you would find that air fares have gone way, way down," says Rudy Maxa, a travel reporter based in Washington.

New types of travel

As tourism grows, it is evolving. The new buzz words in the industry are "adventure travel, heritage trips and ecotourism."

This month, for example, Olivia Murray, a New York banker, will be climbing Washington State's Mt. Rainier (14,411 feet) as part of a "expedition seminar" training her for future climbs. She'll be practicing rescue techniques and ways to stop herself from falling down an icy mountain.

"I like getting outside," says Ms. Murray, who trained for the vacation by working out with 55 pounds in her backpack at New York's Cardio-Fitness Center. She observes that a lot of other people are doing the same thing.

"I guess that means I'll have to go wilder," she says.

The shift has caught the attention of global lending institutions. The World Bank is helping to fund ecology-friendly projects, such as a coastal management system on the Red Sea and improved protection for the mountain gorillas in Africa.

"Ecotourism ... is the growth area in this decade," says Donald Hawkins, who holds the Eisenhower chair of tourism policy at George Washington University in Washington.

A growing number of people now are also taking "heritage" vacations to track down relatives or ancestors. One of those is Leigh Van Blarcom of Tega Cay, S.C. As a vice president of the River Hill, S.C., Genealogical Society, she has traveled to Missouri and Virginia to try tracing relatives who came to America in the 1600s. "The club has people who go to Ireland and Europe," Mrs. Van Blarcom says.

Tourists also have a growing interest in archaeology. Over the past 25 years, Washington, D.C., economist Howard Rosen has spent his spare time in Israel. Now, he has a visa to visit Jordan to see the ruins at Petra, the ancient rock city that dates back to at least the 4th century BC.

"Seeing the ruins in their original environment is really exciting to me," Mr. Rosen says. He is not alone. Last year, Jordan saw a 8.4 percent increase in arrivals.

Indeed, the Middle East is currently the world's fastest growing tourism region. "A united Middle East-Mediterranean travel and tourism industry can transform the region into the next global superdestination," trumpets a press release from the Middle East-Mediterranean Travel & Tourism Association (MEMTTA), which was conceived as part of the Mideast peace process. The New York facilitator, Cord Hansen-Sturm, says MEMMTA's first brochure will devote a large amount of space to Palestinian destinations, since those areas have been underpromoted in the past.

Recently, Robert Pelletreau, assistant US secretary for Near Eastern Affairs, told the MEMMTA group that he could envision the group helping to dispel fears of terrorism. "Your organization can help disseminate accurate information and dispel some out-of-date myths about the Middle East," Mr. Pelletreau said.

While new destinations are opening up, some of the established areas are starting to stagnate. According to WTO statistics, top destinations that saw a decline in tourism revenue last year include Austria, Switzerland, and Mexico. All of Europe grew at only 2.3 percent, well below the world average.

Decline in US receipts

Tourism revenue in the United States, the world's annual sales leader, fell 3.37 percent last year compared with 1994. Over the past five years, America's share of market has also shrunk. Part of the decline is attributed to the devaluation of the Mexican peso and Canadian dollar. Both countries send a significant number of tourists to the US.

The decline coincided with Congress's decision to eliminate the US Tourism and Travel Administration and shift to a public-private partnership. "They threw out the smallest and best performing unit in the Department of Commerce," Mr. Hawkins complains.

One exception to the slide in the US is Alaska, where tourism has grown about 5 percent annually for the last decade. This summer, Alaska is expecting 470,000 tourists by cruise ship, up from 250,000 in 1989 and 310,000 in 1993.

Alaska is now promoting travel in spring and fall, the so-called "shoulder" seasons. The message is getting through to visitors. Alaska anticipated 34,000 to 40,000 cruise passengers in May. "Everything's a little easier. It's less crowded than it will be in two months," says Doug Hanggi of St. Paul, Minn., in Juneau on a recent cruise.

Businesses adapt

The changes in the industry are rippling through such service providers as Carlson Hospitality Worldwide, which owns cruise ships, the Radisson hotel chain, and the second-largest travel agent business in the United States. Carlson devotes one of its cruise ships to "soft adventure," such as trips to the South Pole or Alaska. A second ship is now cruising the Baltic Sea, where Carlson is sponsoring symphonies and festivals.

"What we are doing in the Mediterranean is bringing lecturers on board," says John Norlander, president and chief executive officer of Carlson. "Everyone wants to hear about the history and culture of the ports, not just go shopping," he adds. "It is a function of the baby-boomer generation. They have gone from sitting on the beach to trying to do something for themselves."

At Carlson, the tourism shifts are also reflected in its own work force. Recently Mr. Norlander heard from his Middle East partners that he needed to hire Arabic- and Hebrew-speaking reservation clerks at the company's European reservation system in Dublin. "We have put out a note that we need people who can speak these additional languages that we have not covered until now," he says. It's all part of the global travel business.

* Yereth Rosen contributed to this story from Anchorage, Alaska.

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