By the end of 2012, one billion tourists will have traveled the globe in a single year.
This is an extraordinary figure, especially when we consider that just over 60 years ago international tourists stood at a mere 25 million. In 1950, when tourism was the preserve of the privileged few, it would have been almost unimaginable that by 2012 one seventh of the world would be on the move and crossing international border in just one year.
Behind this impressive number lies an increasingly important engine of growth and job creation. Few realize that tourism is directly responsible for 5 percent of global GDP, that one out of every twelve people worldwide are employed in tourism or that tourism accounts for 30 percent of the world's trade in services.
In some countries, tourism today represents an astonishing 25 percent of GDP.
In 2012, as global growth prospects dim and unemployment persists, tourism is finally receiving the recognition it deserves and is increasingly drawn on as a lever for economic expansion. As President Obama quite rightly said while calling for a national tourism policy that underpins job creation, "The more folks who visit America, the more Americans we get back to work. It's that simple."
It is indeed a simple formula. Every extra tourist means more jobs in tourism and related sectors, higher income for families, increased investment in infrastructure and opportunities for development. Tourism - among the top three sources of export earnings for nearly half of the world's Least Developed Countries - is also proving one of the most effective ways to lift people over the poverty line and empower local communities.
However, tourism is about much more than just the numbers. As one of the only economic sectors based entirely on human interaction, tourism also offers a connecting thread between the visitor and the host, fostering respect and mutual understanding in an often divided world. With one billion tourists traveling outside of their countries, the exchanges sparked between people of all walks of life are incalculable.
Against this background, one billion is an exciting milestone and one to be celebrated. But there are millions more still facing barriers to travel. Complicated, lengthy and overpriced entry formalities and visas are making it difficult for tourists, especially from rapidly growing economies, to travel, to visit, to spend their tourism dollars.
At the same time, one billion is a serious responsibility on the tourism sector. Unplanned and poorly managed tourism development can cause serious harm. We need to be capable of building a more responsible tourism sector; one that protects our common heritage while making it accessible to all and providing the means to preserve it.
The UNWTO Global Code of Ethics for Tourism, a set of guidelines for sustainable and responsible tourism development endorsed by the United Nations, is being increasingly embraced by all involved in tourism. This code and the work of the UNWTO is helping to ensure that the three pillars of sustainability -- economic, environment and social -- remain firmly at the heart of tourism.
Wherever the one billionth tourist arrives, and however she or he arrives, they will be part of one of the fastest growing sectors of the world economy. Acting responsibly and sustainably they will be injecting capital in national economies, protecting landmarks, funding natural parks and supporting the jobs and livelihoods of millions. Amid the doom and gloom of recent years this is surely reason to celebrate.