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The vanishing vacation crisis

Once upon a time, futurists fantasized about a world where the drudgery of work gave way to incredible amounts of free time. So far, however, the combined effects of globalization, economic liberalization and technological progress suggest that leisure time is scarcer than ever. This is a worrisome trend for the tourism industry.

What these new patterns in leisure time mean for tourism in Latin America and around the world was the focus of a study that was presented by tourism consultant Colin Clark at a meeting held in June at the IDB. The study was commissioned by the World Tourism Organization's Business Council, made up of representatives from governments and private sector firms from 134 countries.

In his presentation, Clark cited data from 18 countries in the Americas, Europe and Asia, which in 1996 represented 73 percent of world tourism spending, indicating that time available for tourism will diminish in the future. Current global trends are creating conditions of fierce competition: governments are bent on improving economic performance, companies are striving to raise productivity and employees are putting job security ahead of benefits such as vacations.

The Japanese, famous for not taking what little holidays they are allotted, are unlikely to seek more leisure while their economy is in recession. In the United States, productivity gains traditionally translate into pay increases rather than more free time. Even in Europe, where generous government-mandated paid vacations and short working weeks have long been the rule, some political leaders are starting to grumble about too much free time.

Tourism must also compete with leisure activities--such as entertainment, sports and hobbies--that don't require travel. Industry surveys indicate that consumers are reluctant to spend too much time away from such interests as their gardens and pets--not to mention their jobs.

Putting on a brave face, meeting participants looked to a future in which people may have less leisure time, but are making more frequent and more intense use of it. Big spenders on short vacations could even give the industry better returns on investment, some said.

The sector's leaders stand by their forecast that the international tourism business will continue to expand at a higher rate than the world's economic output over the next two decades to become a $2 trillion behemoth by the year 2020, up from about $400 billion in 1995. Domestic tourism is expected to be four times as big as the international market, with strong growth in Latin America and other emerging regions.

Clark argued that companies that offer the most time-efficient, satisfying and hassle-free travel packages will have a clear advantage over their competition. Among them could be the operators of Caribbean cruises and theme parks, such as those that offer ersatz African safaris without leaving the U.S.

Governments wishing to develop a flourishing tourism industry should encourage the growth of their service sectors, particularly transport and accommodation infrastructure. Safe, efficient airports will be key to luring foreign visitors.

Bureaucracy should also be kept in check, Clark cautioned. "Visa complications certainly do not attract the time-pressed international traveler," he said.

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