Can the world handle a billion tourists?

Can the world handle a billion tourists?

International arrivals are set to hit 10 digits in 2012. Chinese travelers, cheap flights and super cool attractions are a few of the reasons
Angkor Wat
Suddenly, waking up at the crack of dawn to snap photos of the sunrise at Angkor Wat isn't such an original idea.

Stampedes at the Sistine Chapel; queues for the Great Wall of China as long as the wall itself; menus dominated by Asian options at international restaurants.

That's what you might expect to be faced with as a traveler in 2012, when you consider the news from the United Nations World Tourism Organization (UNWTO), that international tourist arrivals are on track to hit 1 billion this year.

That's a whole lot of suitcases.

But is a billion tourists as daunting a number as it sounds?

Actually, the signs are that the world not only can cope with a billion international travelers, it can do so comfortably.

“International tourism hit new records in 2011 despite the challenging conditions,” said UNWTO Secretary-General Taleb Rifai.

“For a sector directly responsible for 5 percent of the world’s GDP, 6 percent of total exports and employing one out of every 12 people in advanced and emerging economies, these results are encouraging, coming as they do at a time in which we urgently need levers to stimulate growth and job creation."

In 2011, 980 million tourists had their passports stamped for international travel according to the UNWTO, a rise of 6 percent over 2010.

This year, growth is expected at 3 to 4 percent, enough to reach the billion mark in total tourist arrivals for the first time. Despite a generally gloomy global economic forecast, the figures are helped by a number of factors.

Great Wall of ChinaIt's getting harder to find a crowd-free stretch of China's Great Wall, and there are more visitors on the way. As Air Asia's tag line puts it so well, "Now everyone can fly." The rise of low-cost airlines is a key factor in the increase of world tourism.

There are also growing middle classes in China, Brazil and India, giving more people in those countries the financial freedom to cross borders.

According to some figures, 56 million Chinese traveled overseas in 2011.

The global tourism industry is taking notice. Hotels, restaurants and cruise ships all over the world are scrambling to cater to their needs by bringing in more Asian chefs, Chinese TV programming and Chinese-speaking staff.

More on CNNGo: International hotels race to woo Chinese market

Where is everybody going?

Europe is the world's most popular destination. Tourist arrivals there hit a whopping 503 million in 2011, accounting for 28 million of the 41 million additional international arrivals recorded worldwide.

Coming in a distant second is Asia, which received 216 million international travelers.

The Americas (+4 percent) saw an increase of 6 million arrivals, reaching 156 million in total. South America, up by 10 percent, for the second consecutive year, continued to lead growth.

Central America and the Caribbean (both +4 percent) maintained the growth rates of 2010. North America, with a 3 percent increase, welcomed 100 million tourists in 2011.

Africa maintained its international arrivals at 50 million, as the gain of two million by Sub-Saharan destinations (+7 percent) was offset by the losses in North Africa (-12 percent).

Finally, the Middle East (-8 percent) lost an estimated 5 million international tourist arrivals, totalling 55 million.

"Nevertheless, some destinations such as Saudi Arabia, Oman and the United Arab Emirates sustained steady growth," according to the report.

More on CNNGo: 6 peculiar European destinations sought by Chinese tourists

If you build it, they might come

So how is the world coping? By building more and fixing what’s broken. Just look at this plan to turn a derelict Florida pier into a futuristic eco-friendly wonderland.

EphesusTurkey is fighting to manage its growing popularity while securing ancient historical sites like Ephesus. Then there are Asian cities such as Singapore, experiencing their own growth spurts due to recent developments. The city-state welcomed a record 13 million visitors in 2011. It's particularly notable when Singapore's size is considered, given India reportedly received only six million foreign tourists in 2011.

Singapore's success is directly related to the government's decision to legalize gambling, with two massive casino resorts -- Marina Bay Sands and Sentosa Resorts World -- pulling in the most visitors.

"We're turning people away," said Sands' billionaire chief executive Sheldon Adelson of his integrated resort's occupancy rates, which reportedly exceed 90 percent on average.

Even former outcast Myanmar is planning to develop its infrastructure in line with a boost in arrivals, thanks to its moves to open up and recent words of encouragement from the United States.

Just this week, the government there announced plans to build an elevated and underground train in Myanmar's largest city, Yangon, based on models in Bangkok and Beijing.

More on CNNGo:The 'Millionaire's Tour' of Myanmar

But while some cities rush to build things anew, other hot travel destinations are caving under the weight of all those visitors. For years cities such as Venice have been crying out for help as their ancient sites crumble beneath the crowds.

A 2011 report by Gadling said that the age-old battle pitting historical preservation against tourism infrastructure development is coming to a fever pitch in Turkey.

"In recent years, Turkey has emerged as one of the world's fastest growing economies, as well as an increasingly popular destination for tourists," said the report. "It shall be interesting to see how Turkey's antiquities fare as these two factors force the country towards more development."

With one billion people traveling this year, it's an issue that will be faced by dozens of countries fighting to strike a balance between tourism and preservation.

Do you plan to hit the road this year? Tell us where you want to travel in the comments box below, or head to our iReport page to share photos and videos of your experiences.

Karla is a digital producer with CNN Travel based in Bangkok, Thailand. 

Read more about Karla Cripps
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