MADRID, Jan 29 (Reuters) - Global tourism is proving resilient in the face of an economic slowdown, with tourist numbers growing at close to pre-crisis levels in 2012 and expected to increase by almost as much this year, the UN World Tourism Organisation said on Tuesday.
Europe held onto its position as the world's most-visited region in 2012 but the Asia-Pacific is catching up, recording the biggest increase in tourists in 2012 and expecting another strong performance this year.
International tourist arrivals crossed the 1 billion mark for the first time in 2012, with visitor numbers swelling 4 percent. The Madrid-based UNWTO predicts similar growth this year.
"2012 saw continued economic volatility around the globe, particularly in the euro zone. Yet international tourism managed to stay on course," UNWTO Secretary-General and former Jordan Tourism Minister Taleb Rifai said in a statement.
Tourists also spent more when on holiday in 2012, with Chinese and Russian travellers increasing their spending the most. Chinese tourists spent 42 percent more abroad than in 2011, while Russians raised their spending by a third.
The result was increased revenues for popular tourist destinations, particularly Hong Kong, the United States and Olympic Games host Britain.
Travellers from the austerity-hit euro zone cut spending on foreign travel, however: French tourists trimmed their budgets by 7 percent and Italians spent 2 percent less.
The sunny beaches of southern Europe attracted more tourists in 2012, but central and eastern Europe outpaced the popular resorts of Spain and Greece on growth, registering 8 percent more foreign visitors in 2012 against 2 percent for the southern Mediterranean.
Further south, Africa rebounded in 2012 to attract 52 million tourists, a recovery after visitor numbers fell in 2012 as travellers concerned by conflicts in North Africa shunned the region. Tourist numbers increased 6 percent in 2012, compared to a 1 percent drop in 2011.
While more people visited north and sub-Saharan Africa, three million fewer tourists travelled to the Middle East, the UNWTO noted, "in spite of the clear recovery in Egypt".
The region registering the biggest increase in visitor numbers was Asia Pacific with 15 million, or 7 percent, more tourists holidaying there. It is expected to register growth of between 5 and 6 percent in 2013.
"The sector has shown its capacity to adjust to the changing market conditions....Tourism is thus one of the pillars that should be supported by governments around the world as part of the solution to stimulating economic growth," Rifai said. (Reporting by Clare Kane)