Eugenio Yunis of the Spain-based World Tourism Organisation (WTO) said global tourism had recovered and the encouraging pace was expected to continue into 2004.

"Recovery started in the third and fourth quarters of this year. The recovery is strong," he said on the sidelines of a two-day conference in Kuala Lumpur on "Sustainability certification of tourism activities."

"But we cannot predict that the record number of 714 million international arrivals for 2002 will be reached this year," said Yunis, who is the WTO chief for the sustainable development of tourism.

Vulnerable industry

The September 11 attacks on the US, the outbreak of the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) in Asia and the war on Iraq showed the tourism industry was vulnerable to crises, he said.

"Tourists had stayed away from all the countries in the region. But immediately SARS was controlled, arrivals in Asia started to pick up," he said.

"We are pretty confident that if there is no major war or epidemic the prospects are good for the tourism industry. Industry players are optimistic next year will be a better year."

Yunis said a world free of major crises would witness annual tourism growth of four percent and hit WTO's target of 1.5 billion tourists by the year 2020, with Asia providing the engine of growth.

Asia had overtaken the Americas to become the second most popular destination after Europe, he said.

"China is also a promising market. They have 1.3 billion people, if only 10% travel, you have 130 million people travelling"

Eugenio Yunis,
World Tourism Organisation

"Initially until 2000 it was the Americas. Now Asia has become the second largest destination, with China leading."

Yunis said China, with its 1.3 billion population, was experiencing rapid growth and had emerged not only as a tourist-generating country but a popular destination.

"China has experienced very rapid growth and it will continue. We predict by 2010 and 2012, China will be the first destination worldwide for tourists.

"China is also a promising market. They have 1.3 billion people, if only 10% travel, you have 130 million people travelling."

Malaysia picks up

Mohamad Azmi Razak, secretary-general of Malaysia's tourism ministry said  tourists arrivals in Malaysia had improved in the aftermath of SARS and the Iraq invasion.

"It is improving gradually," he told news agency AFP.

Mohamad Azmi said Malaysia had cut its forecast to just 10 million tourists for this year compared to 13.5 million arrivals in 2002.

"Our original target was 13 to 15 million tourists," he said.

Mohamad Azmi said Malaysia would focus its promotions to woo tourists from the Middle East, China and India.

"The outlook for 2004 is better provided there are no major incidents. We should get 15 to 20 million arrivals," he added.