The Tourism Industry and Its Use in International Relations

The tourism industry has become one of the largest and fastest growing economic sectors globally. The World Travel and Tourism Council estimates that tourism generates over 10% of global GDP and accounts for 1 in 10 jobs worldwide. The ability of tourism to create economic growth, employment, and development has made the industry a popular tool in the foreign policy and international relations of many countries.

This article provides an overview of the use of tourism in international relations. It examines the economic importance of tourism and its political leverage as a foreign policy tool. It discusses how tourism diplomacy has been utilized by countries to improve their international image, build political influence, and diffuse tensions. It also explores criticisms and limitations of using tourism cooperation as a path to normalizing international relations. Overall, the analysis illustrates the complex intersections between this major global industry and foreign policy dynamics.

The Economic Power of Tourism

International tourist arrivals have grown from 25 million globally in 1950 to nearly 1.5 billion in 2019, with international tourism receipts reaching US$1.7 trillion. The tourism sector directly contributed an estimated US$8.8 trillion and 319 million jobs to the global economy in 2019. The sector’s contribution has increased by 2.6% annually from 2014-2019, faster than global GDP.

Developing countries earn nearly US$240 billion a year from international tourism, making it an essential driver of socio-economic progress. Tourism accounts for over 20% of total exports in 60 countries and is often the primary export for developing states. For the world’s 40 poorest countries, tourism provides one of the few viable development options.

Regional blocs like ASEAN and the EU recognize tourism’s economic importance through policies to increase intra-regional travel. Tourism provides crucial foreign exchange earnings, investment, and employment. The industry has proven relatively resilient to political turmoil and economic crises in many regions. Geostrategic regions like the Mediterranean Basin and Silk Road have made tourism cooperation a priority.

This immense economic size and reach gives tourism major political and diplomatic leverage. The dependence of many small and developing countries on Western tourists gives international tourism a neo-colonial dimension. But the industry’s potential for building understanding between peoples also garners diplomatic support. The following sections explore the complex dynamics of how tourism can be utilized within foreign policy and international relations.

Tourism Diplomacy for International Image and Influence

Many nations vigorously promote their tourism assets internationally as a way to boost their country’s branding, reputation, and influence. States utilize marketing, public relations campaigns, and participation in multilateral tourism institutions to shape international perceptions and politics.

Malaysia, Turkey, and Morocco have undertaken major tourism campaigns to build their image as modern, developed Muslim democracies. Saudi Arabia’s growing tourism push aims to alter perceptions of the Kingdom from an insular oil state to an open destination. The United Arab Emirates promotes its extravagant infrastructure like the Burj Khalifa tower and artificial Palm Islands to reinforce perceptions of the UAE as a wealthy, hyper-modern state.

The tourism-based national branding of Dubai and Abu Dhabi emirates within the UAE federation has also increased their political leverage and global name recognition relative to other member emirates. Qatar leverages its international aviation hub and high-profile museums to punch above its small geographic size.

Such tourism diplomacy interacts with broader cultural diplomacy using entertainment, arts, sports, and educational exchanges to shape a nation’s international image and influence. Countries like China couple expanded tourism access with Confucius Institutes promoting Chinese language and culture.

Major tourism markets like the United States and European countries hold significant diplomatic influence in international regulatory and marketing bodies around tourism. Leadership within multilateral institutions like the UN World Tourism Organization provides countries influence in setting standards and agendas in tourism governance.

Trade and Tourism in Normalizing International Relations

Expanding tourism links and people-to-people ties has become a popular pathway for normalizing relations between countries with a history of tensions or limited diplomatic ties. Tourism is often the first cooperative sector when transitioning from hostility to engagement between states.

The opening of Cuba to American tourism in 2015 after decades of estrangement was a milestone in U.S.-Cuban rapprochement. Gradual increase in Chinese tourism to Taiwan has paralleled political reconciliation since the late 1980s. The development of Red Sea resorts, improved flight connections, and bilateral tourism offices eased tensions between Israel and Egypt during the 1990s following their 1979 peace treaty.

The growth of Arabian Gulf tourism helped warm relations between Gulf Arab states and post-revolutionary Iran. Indian promotion of tourism to Pakistan along with limited trade links and people-to-people exchanges are widely seen as improving bilateral relations despite major political disputes that persist.

States utilize bilateral tourism cooperation like marketing projects, eased travel restrictions, tourism trade shows, and educational exchanges to signal positive intent in inflammatory relationships. Tourism development around disputed borders can help create economic interdependencies that raise the costs of conflict. However, outcomes vary widely in different conflicts.

Eco-tourism at the demilitarized zone between North and South Korea represents hopes for reconciliation. But unregulated tourism to occupied Northern Cyprus has hampered UN mediation efforts by reinforcing the status quo of division. In the South China Sea dispute, tourism development has not slowed militarization of contested islands and waters.

Public Diplomacy Through Tourism Personnel

Tourism diplomacy also operates at the micro level of interactions between tourists and the various locals involved in tourism services. Governments often utilize tourism personnel like tour guides, hotel staff, immigration officers, and police to shape perceptions of foreign visitors towards national goals.

During the Cold War, both Western and Soviet bloc countries used guided tourism to showcase the supposed merits of their contrasting political-economic systems. Authoritarian states monitor and constrain undesirable political discourse between locals and foreign tourists. Meanwhile, ‘freer’ societies allow more unstructured interactions with tourists to communicate national realities, for good or ill.

The training of tourism personnel and policies on their interaction with foreigners carry significant public diplomacy implications. Bureaucratic hassles in obtaining visas or navigating airports can immediately tarnish a country’s image. Excellence in tourism services requires and enables grassroots cultural understanding and diplomacy.

Criticisms and Limitations of Tourism Diplomacy

While tourism possesses major economic and political-cultural importance, its use in diplomacy and foreign policy also faces criticisms and obstacles.

Tourism cooperation struggles to fundamentally resolve conflicts rooted in clashing material interests or ideologies. Bridging divides between Indian and Pakistani nationalism or reconciling U.S.-China geopolitical rivalry requires more than increasing travel and cultural exchanges. Tourists may become complicit in occupation and human rights abuses.

heavy dependence on Western tourists and corporate investments skews tourism development priorities in developing regions. Leakages of tourism revenues to foreign firms and reliance on imported goods and expertise can limit net benefits to local economies.

Unregulated tourism brings social costs like environmental damage, urban gentrification, threats to local culture, and labor exploitation. This has spurred resistance and policy debates over strategies like ecotourism, community-based tourism, and reduced dependency on foreign operators.

The tourism sector’s high carbon emissions contribution to climate change threatens vulnerable destinations reliant on tourism. Rising nationalism and anti-immigration politics in developed countries also constrain tourism growth. Tourist arrivals dwindled during 2010s stresses in the Eurozone and aftermath of the 2008 global financial crisis. Trade wars and disease epidemics impose further uncertainties.


The expanding tourism industry holds tremendous political and economic importance that makes tourism cooperation an attractive instrument in foreign policy and international relations. Nations utilize tourism diplomacy and exchanges to boost international image and influence. Gradual tourism links often pave the way for normalizing estranged relationships between states. Public diplomacy operates at the micro level of tourist-local interactions.

However, tourism’s limitations around resolving deep conflicts of politics and ideology must be acknowledged. Social and environmental costs to local populations require mitigation through appropriate policies. As a discretionary luxury activity, tourism remains vulnerable to global economic and political forces. Ongoing innovation and leadership in policy and marketing will be essential for tourism to fulfil its full potential in advancing sustainable development, multicultural understanding, and more peaceful international relations.


Alderman, D. H. (2020). Tourism geopolitics: The leveraging of culture and heritage for covenantal ends. Journal of Tourism and Cultural Change, 18(3), 267-290.

D’Amore, L. J. (2009). Peace through tourism: The birthing of a new socio-economic order. Journal of Business Ethics, 89(4), 559-568.

Gyr, U. (2010). The history of tourism: Structures on the path to modernity. The History of Tourism: Structures on the Path to Modernity.

Henderson, J. C. (2007). Tourism crises: Causes, consequences and management. Routledge.

Huang, S. S., & Cai, L. A. (2015). Modeling tourism fraud behavior: The example of Chinese tour guides. Tourism Management, 46, 92-104.

Kim, S. S., & Prideaux, B. (2003). Tourism, peace, politics and ideology: Impacts of the Mt. Gumgang tour project in the Korean peninsula. Tourism Management, 24(6), 675-685.

Klemm, P., & Laing, J. H. (2001). Tourism, capital, and environmental sustainability: developing tourist resorts on Afionas Bay, Corfu. Journal of Sustainable Tourism, 9(4), 326-335.

Korstanje, M. E., & George, B. P. (2012). Tourism as politics: 500 years of power struggles. E-Review of Tourism Research (eRTR), 10(5).

Mostafanezhad, M. (2014). Volunteer tourism and the popular humanitarian gaze. Geoforum, 54, 111-118.

Richter, L. K. (1980). The political uses of tourism: A Philippine case study. The Journal of Developing Areas, 237-257.

Salazar, N. B. (2006). Touristifying Tanzania: Local guides, global discourse. Annals of Tourism Research, 33(3), 833-852.

Timothy, D. J. (Ed.). (1999). Tourism and political boundaries. Routledge.

Wintersteiner, W., & Wohlmuther, C. (2014). Peace sensitive tourism: How tourism can contribute to peace. International handbook on tourism and peace, 31-63.

World Travel and Tourism Council. Economic Impact Reports, available at

Zhang, H. Q., Chong, K., & Ap, J. (1999). An analysis of tourism policy development in modern China. Tourism management, 20(4), 471-485.

SAKHRI Mohamed
SAKHRI Mohamed

I hold a bachelor's degree in political science and international relations as well as a Master's degree in international security studies, alongside a passion for web development. During my studies, I gained a strong understanding of key political concepts, theories in international relations, security and strategic studies, as well as the tools and research methods used in these fields.

Articles: 14307

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *