airports & tourists

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Airports reveal a lot about the culture of a country and their people. If you have traveled overseas, specially to the developing world, you’ll agree that leaving the airport’s customs area to join the crowds at the arrivals lounge can be a shocking experience: There are just too many people waiting for their loved ones. Airports in North America have a very different rhythm, business oriented and very transactional. I believe the reason behind this dramatic difference is the intent of those who travel in & out of these airports.

In most rich countries, travelers are mainly of two kinds: business people & tourists. In both cases they travel abroad with a very well planned itinerary and the intention to come back. Theirs is a round-trip, typically very short, that promises lots of rewards. The arrival at the lounge is nothing else but the last leg in the trip and as such it has been planned. There is no need for ceremony. The highlight of the trip IS the trip.

In the developing world, aside from the types described above there are those who fear the airport as the gateway to an unknown world that, while full of opportunities, requires the sacrifice of leaving the family behind in order to chase after a better future. Theirs is a one-way-trip, that may or may not render the rewards expected. All those people at the arrival lounge are there to celebrate the return of a lost one, who may even consider that arrival as the highlight of the whole trip.

Looking at data from the World Tourism Organization, it is obvious there is a strong correlation between the tourism expenditure per capita and the degree to which countries play in the global context. While the Top Spenders are Germany, U.S.A., U.K., Japan & France (see graph):

If we sort the list by Expenditure per capita (US$), the story is quite different:

  • Singapore: 2,197
  • Hong Kong: 1,936
  • Norway: 1,842
  • Austria: 1,459
  • Belgium: 1,355
  • Denmark: 1,352
  • Ireland: 1,310
  • Sweden: 1,131
  • Switzerland: 1,181
  • Netherlands: 1,007

… and somehow familiar: 8 out of 10 are also in the list of most globalized. While tourism in itself is an important economic contributor, the strong correlation tells me that an attitude of confidence when exploring the world has given these countries and their people an advantage when ideating new enterprises that mine the wealth of the globe.

As a contrast, the two countries with the smallest expenditure per capita, China & India, are likely the ones that will be culturally more influential over the coming years. My explanation is simple: their people are leaving with the intention of not looking back, therefore they must pack their culture. It is the only thing they will preserve.

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