Tourism figures for 2011 UNWTO

International tourist numbers expanded in 2011 despite the economic crisis, the Arab spring and Japanese disasters, and will hit one billion this year, according to UNWTO.

The number of international tourist arrivals grew by 4.4 percent to 980 million in 2011, up from 940 million in 2010, the Madrid-based United Nations World Tourism Organization said in an annual survey.

But while the number of visitors to Europe surged as civil conflicts drove many tourists away from sunspots in the Middle East and North Africa in 2011, the overall recovery that began in 2010 appears to be losing steam, it said.

World tourism had recovered from its worst year in 60 years in 2009, the body's secretary general Taleb Rifai said, with visitor numbers up 6.7 percent in 2010. The 2011 figure was within the body's 4.0-5.0 percent forecast.

Now, the organisation forecasts international tourism will grow further in 2012 although at a slower rate.

"Arrivals are expected to increase by 3.0 to 4.0 percent, reaching the historic one billion mark by the end of the year," it said.

Asia and Africa are expected to post the greatest growth in tourist numbers this year, with the agency predicting tourist arrivals in the two regions will rise by 4.0 to 6.0 percent.

The world's regions had mixed fortunes last year.Europe recorded an extra 29 million visitors and a total of 503 million -- six percent higher than 2010, reflecting the sharpest rise of all the region but Africa, with 50 million visitors overall, logged no growth in tourist arrivals in 2011 after posting gains of 6.0 percent in the previous year.

"The gain of two million by sub-Saharan destinations (7.0 percent) was offset by the losses in North Africa" of 12 percent, the report said..

North Africa posted the biggest decline in visitor numbers, with the region drawing 16.4 million tourists, a drop of 12.0 percent.

"Contrary to previous years, growth was higher in advanced economies (5.0 percent) than in emerging ones (3.7 percent), due largely to the strong results in Europe, and the setbacks in the Middle East and North Africa," the report said.

Rifai said the overall growth in a sector that accounts for five percent of the world's gross domestic product was potentially good news in hard economic times, however.

"These results are encouraging, coming as they do at a time in which we urgently need levers to stimulate growth and job creation," he said in the report.