As vacation photos from exotic locales pile up in Facebook and Instagram feeds this summer, it’s easy to take far-flung tourism for granted. Well-heeled friends riding elephants in Thailand or camels in Giza might as well be at the Jersey shore or beside a lake in the Adirondacks. Mass international tourism, like the free flow of goods, services, money and data, has become a hallmark of globalization.
This is neither accidental nor trivial. The ability of those with means and passports to travel the world is a function of international cooperation. It is also a force for global understanding, a potential antidote to the resurgent nationalism that now infects this era. Achieving such cosmopolitan ideals, however, requires a tourism focused on people-to-people contacts and mutual benefits, rather than perpetuating self-contained bubbles of privilege.
At the dawn of the 20th century, foreign leisure travel required no passports. But it was the province of aristocrats and plutocrats of the sort that populated Henry James novels. The advent of jet travel, followed by package tours and declining airline fares, hastened mass tourism. According to the World Bank, between 1995 and 2017 the number of international tourist arrivals rose more than 250 percent, from slightly above 500 million to more than 1.3 billion, while tourist expenditures more than tripled, from $463 billion to $1.45 trillion. The United Nations estimates that tourism now accounts for 10 percent of global GDP and 7 percent of exports, and supports one out of every 10 jobs. Tourists still flock to Paris and Acapulco, but new, once unimaginable destinations from Antarctica to Zanzibar have also emerged.