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Arts & Culture | September 28, 2015

Between September 12th and 17th, the United Nations World Tourism Organization (UNWTO) held their annual general assembly meeting in Medellin, Colombia. This city of two million nestled in the mountains of the country’s northwestern region served as the backdrop for UNWTO members to present new data—proof of the changing landscape of international tourism.

The UNTWO works with economically developing nations, encouraging and teaching them how to use tourism to grow their local economies while preserving their cultural heritage.

At the general assembly, the UNWTOs Secretary-General Taleb Rifai gave a speech highlighting Medellin’s recent success as a tourist destination. He stated that now, more than ever, cities like Medellin that were recently off most tourists’ radars, have the potential to become thriving international destinations and can benefit from it. According to the UNWTO, Medellin’s effort to develop its tourism industry by improving its infrastructure and transportation systems has paid off in economic development and helped remove its stigma as a dangerous place. “[Tourism] has the potential to deliver on some of the most pressing challenges of our time, namely job creation, economic growth, and social inclusion,” he said.

In 2014, travel to Colombia went up by 12 percent. But it’s not the only nation on the continent that saw an increase in popularity. International tourism throughout South America increased by 5 percent from 2013 to 2014.

These numbers are certainly significant, especially when compared with those of other historically popular tourist destinations, like western and southern Europe. The UNWTO published a report in late 2014 titled “Tourism Highlights, 2015 Edition,” detailing the percentage of tourism growth worldwide, as well as projected growth. The report noted that Europe still boasted the highest absolute tourist growth in 2014, but other areas of the globe are experiencing surges in popularity stronger than their European counterparts. South America and the Middle East saw an average annual growth of 5.1 percent and 4.7 percent of tourists, respectively, between 2005 and 2014. Also experiencing notable growth are the regions of Southeast Asia (7.9 percent) and South Asia (8.6 percent). Europe’s annual growth percentage was much lower—only 2.8 percent overall.

The UNWTO report also predicts that the patterns from the past decade are expected to continue.

According to these numbers, tourists are more inclined to travel to the regions of South America, South and Southeast Asia, and the Middle East than ever before. Why are these regions gaining appeal now? And with whom?

American millennials are a driving force behind this shift in destination popularity. According to Dr. Deepak Chhabra, a sustainability scientist and tourism expert at Arizona State University, millennials are seeking travel destinations that center on cultural immersion, especially in nations that feel particularly unfamiliar. Chhabra calls this interest in engaging with foreign communities and customs “culture 3.0,” and cites it as a reason that a lot of young Americans are now avoiding beach and resort vacations in favor of ones that take them to global cities, or ones based in wilderness exploration. “There’s a demand to immerse in intangible heritage,” says Chhabra. Simply put, culture 3.0 is more centered on a unique experience for the tourist and less on traditional sightseeing associated with destinations like London and Paris. It’s also incredibly valuable to young Americans who are using travel to broaden their cultural scope and engage with something completely new, according to Chhabra.

Culture 3.0 is something that cities like London and Paris cannot provide for young tourists. John Kester, who specializes in tourism and marketing trends at the UNWTO, said that young people have an urge to be original in the travel destinations that they choose. “It’s important for a lot of people to distinguish themselves. If half the people you know have already been to London or Paris, you’d rather make a statement by saying ‘I’ve been to Marrakesh.’”

The UNWTO advises that the strategy of a nation trying to attract international tourists should be to preserve its cultural heritage. In a promotional video for Medellin, the narrator notes the “indigenous roots” and “traditions” that are expected to make Medellin attractive to tourists from all over the world. In a deep, sincere voice, the narrator bellows, “Medellin is culture.”

Kester argues that expanding tourism industries only helps preserve a nation’s culture. “There are sufficient examples of countries where you might see cultural habits and elements disappear and because of tourism they experience a revival,” he said.

Though this tourist surge has undeniably helped cities like Medellin create jobs for their residents, there are some negative implications to consider. Critics say that encouraging countries to hold on to their culture in order to attract tourists is leading to exotification. Tourists may seek culture in a place like Medellin because it gives them an opportunity to feel superior. This can be problematic, and it may not be worth the economic benefits that the nations are reaping, according to UC Berkeley senior researcher Alexis Celeste Bunten. “As part and parcel of [tourism’s] intimacy, hosts must submit to the ‘tourist gaze,’ compounding the objectification (and, in a sense, the dehumanization) of the host in relation to the tourist,” she said in her 2008 article “Sharing Culture or Selling Out?”

In its “Global Code of Ethics For Tourism,” the UNWTO does emphasize that tourism should primarily benefit the host community, and it strives to protect this mission in its outreach. Nonetheless, it remains difficult to draw a clear boundary between commodification and cultural respect.