IT'S A GOOD question. How many people in the world travelled as tourists last year? With the global population nudging seven billion, how many do you think visited a country other than their homeland for a short, recreational visit. Five, maybe six, hundred million?
In 2011, with much of the developed world in recession, nearly a billion people – 982 million, to be precise – were in the air, on the road, on ships and trains, as tourists. Just over half, according to the World Tourism Organization, were travelling in the advanced world, 459 million in what is classified as the 'emerging' world.
Think about this for a minute. It means that, give or take some repeat offenders, about one in every ten human beings on the planet visited another country in 2011. This is a jump of about a third since 2000 when a mere 673 million crossed their borders to see and feel something different.
Australians, ever ready to make an international trend their own, were at the forefront of this movement (excuse the pun). In 1990 Australians made just under two million overseas trips, two decades on the number was closer to seven million journeys. Affluence has made Australians more mobile than ever.
Last year a third of the population travelled abroad – well over six hundred thousand each month. Six hundred and fifty thousand people dreaming of where they want to go, researching their destinations, booking their flights and accommodation, changing money, packing their bags, absorbing the hassles on the promise of something different.
Australians can be the most discrete and unobtrusive travellers, blending in to the local environment without guile or expectation. But they can also be noisy parodies – boorish, arrogant and demanding. It depends on context and confidence, where they are and what they expect. Australians are now so ubiquitous that they test the old stereotypes of the 'gormless ocker' abroad.
Nonetheless, most of those under forty opted for New Zealand, Indonesia, the United States and Thailand; older travellers were also attracted to New Zealand, but were more likely to put Europe higher on their itineraries than Indonesia.
The numbers of people coming and going are simply mind-boggling. No wonder airports can be such ghastly places. The notion of travel as a recreational pursuit of the wealthy is long past – it is something that almost everyone does, splashing money as they go, picking up insights, sharing bits of their personal and cultural identity with those they meet along the way, comparing, gloating, envying and just absorbing the experience.
NUMBERS ARE ONE thing; the full meaning of this in terms of global engagement is more perplexing. Will this extraordinary movement of people aid understanding or exacerbate tensions?
Australians are travelling more than ever, but whether this has fostered a sense of well-being, cosmopolitanism and openness remains a question, as the award-winning SBS programme Go Back to Where You Came From demonstrated. The ugly public tone of discussion about immigration, refugees and 'foreign' workers suggests that all this travel has fostered a desire to jealously guard national good fortune rather than share it.
It is striking that the Australians most likely to travel are those who were born abroad, particularly if their homeland is within eight-hours flying time. This is not surprising, proximity has always aided movement, never more so than in today's multicultural world, with jobs and opportunity unequally distributed.
But it is not unique to the twenty-first century. As John Fitzgerald noted in Big White Lie, the early Chinese settlers in the Australian colonies were more likely to return home than settlers from Europe – they moved back and forth at the same rate as Irish settlers in the United States whose journey across the Atlantic Ocean was a similar distance as Shanghai to Sydney.
The growth of the international airline business has shrunk the definition of proximity, just as the globalised media industry has brought distant events and places tantilisingly close.
While citizens of the advanced world travel to 'emerging' countries for authentic, challenging, stimulating experiences, much of the travel within these countries is prosaic and driven by more urgent needs. In her Booker winning novel, The Inheritance of Loss, Kiran Desai created an unforgettable image of people from India and Pakistan cramming into discount airlines on interminable flights hopping from one 'emerging' airport to another, cheap plastic luggage stuffed with belongings, pursuing the promise of jobs that rarely met the dream. For them travel was essential, not a luxury.
It is one thing to take a holiday, even an extended break, quite another to feel compelled to travel to survive. While the number of refugees searching for a new homeland is small by comparison with the number of tourists traversing the globe, the paths of both groups cross at immigration checkpoints. As anyone who has waited in a crowded arrivals hall, and watched others singled out for special attention, can attest, the combination of chance, opportunity and good fortune is fragile. The dividing line between being a tourist and an exile, a migrant or a refugee, is almost random – stability is not permanent. Once great civilisations can become tourist ruins in an alarmingly short time.
TOURISM IS A serious business, it accounts for a substantial proportion of global trade. But it is relentless, demanding constant investment, promotion, renewal; grappling with the intangibles of fashion and sentiment, service without servility.
The internet has shrunk the world, while advances in airline technology and competition have made travel more affordable, even as the pressures of climate change and fuel scarcity introduce new costs.
To break through, attract more visitors and hold them longer, national branding has become a quasi-science. National identity distilled to a slogan: Incredible India, Cool Britannia, Pure New Zealand.
Cultural distinctiveness is the great lure, the amalgam that grows from the physical, built and human environment to create something unique and, in the jargon of the day, 'compelling'.
Not surprisingly, France, with its distinctive identity, has long occupied the top spot – luring nearly eighty million international visitors every year. The idea of France is deeply embedded, its unique ambiance acts as a magnet that pulls tourists and holds them. But it does not force them to spend – the pleasures of French tourism, the food, publicly subsidised galleries and transport keep it relatively affordable.
Despite its economic woes, the idea of America is also magnetic, with sixty million people working their way through its arrivals halls and, according to the official statistics for 2010, apparently then heading straight for the shops, hotels and restaurants. Tourists spent over a hundred billion dollars that year – underlining the truth that consuming is part of America's cultural identity.
As in so many other areas, China's ascendancy is also apparent through the increasing number of tourists landing at its ultra-modern airports. While still coming third in terms of numbers, and fourth in expenditure, the growth rate suggests it is only a matter of time before China's global ranking as a tourist destination, as in so many other areas, rises.
Australia does not rank in the top destinations, distance and cost act as a brake on numbers, but these characteristics mean that it does rank high, eighth in 2010, in terms of tourism receipts. Whether this magic pudding – minimal impact, high returns – will produce an enduring formula will depend in the long run on whether the intangible cultural lure of Australia is sufficient to entice visitors and give them reason to endure a long flight.
Getting the cultural image right is not simply a matter of developing a slogan and marketing campaign. For some time Australian tourism officials have been struggling with tone, to come up with an approach that doesn't make locals cringe while connecting with the expectations and aspirations of visitors.
Not so long ago this was relatively straightforward – Australia could be reduced to images of exotic flora and fauna, rugged blokes, barbecues, beer and beaches. But this image is increasingly discordant, out of step with the more diverse and sophisticated reality of the country and its people.
Making sense of the cultural diversity, unifying elements and the layers of history of contemporary Australia will be essential if the externally projected notion of national identity is to ring true for visitors and encourage generous open-mindedness in an increasingly small world.