As the new millennium dawned, we were told to wave goodbye to the so-called “American century”. The 21st century, experts assured us, would belong to Asia’s fledgling economies, poised to become new superpowers.
We may only be seventeen years in, but while economists fight it out over whether predictions were correct, it’s clear Asia’s rising economies are already staking out their ground when it comes to tourism – and changing the world of travel while they’re at it.
Economic growth has led to an explosion in Asia’s middle classes, and they’ve bought a voracious appetite for travel with them. While larger economies such as Japan and China’s globetrotting side is already well-documented, less developed economies are getting a look in too, with Indonesia and the Philippines seeing outbound tourist numbers soar in recent years.
It’s a trend that hasn’t gone unnoticed by other countries either. In 2012 Australia announced a plan to double incoming tourists’ expenditure to $140 billion by the end of the decade, and it’s clear all eyes are on its Asian neighbours.
India, for example, is seen as a largely untapped market. With twenty times more households with over $10,000 in annual disposable income than 1990, countries across the world are vying to establish themselves as the go-to destination for middle-class spenders.
On the other side of the continent, Chinese tourists are already well known for splashing the cash when they’re on holiday. Sky-high taxes on luxury goods back home see wealthy travellers head abroad to stock up – and brands across the world have sensed a goldmine. In Spain, hotels have rushed to get themselves an official “Chinese-friendly” approval, while the UK has introduced simplified visas in an attempt to encourage tourists to spend £1 billion annually by the end of 2017.
The days of the anglo-centric travel are behind us, it would seem – or at least on their way out. But an Asian century doesn’t only mean changes for Asian tourists. Travellers from all around the world stand to benefit from Asian countries opening their own doors to millions more incoming visitors over the coming years.
Asian nations were the star-performers in the World Economic Forum’s tourism competitiveness rankings this year. India especially saw its ratings soar, jumping 12 places from 2016, while Japan sat comfortably among Spain, France and Germany as one of the world’s top five destinations.
The survey, which takes into account factors from safety to sustainability is seen as a testament to the region’s rise. In fact, almost all of the continent’s countries improved their ranking to some extent, with smaller economies, such as Thailand and Vietnam, scoring highly for their natural and cultural resources. Teamed with ever improving English levels – and the Western-style services that often accompany them – Asian cities are becoming more accessible than ever to tourists from across the globe.
While more intrepid travellers might bemoan previously overlooked destinations becoming tourist hot-spots, there’s a silver lining in it for them too. The effects of the Asian century are far from limited to tourism. In many countries, the economic boom has given the government unprecedented amounts of money to pour into cultural preservation – and while this may ostensibly be for the good of their own citizens, adventurous tourists can easily make the most of it too.
In China, for example, millions have been put aside for the conservation of minority culture, opening up previously unaccessible villages, cultures and customs to curious travellers willing to go off the beaten track. Japan has looked even further afield, investing in the post-conflict preservation of monuments as far as Cambodia and Afghanistan.
Wherever you look, there’s no denying Asia’s increasing influence. But for open-minded travellers – wherever they’re from – there’s far more to celebrate than fear. Increased connectivity and cultural understanding promises to usher in a new era of travel – perhaps, when it comes to tourism, we’re looking at the ‘Global Century’ instead.