The Mediterranean & Caribbean losing market share

... and the trend looks set to continue ...

The beach remains the biggest attraction in global travel, with its popularity booming as never before. The Mediterranean, however, is not benefitting much from improving visitor numbers. Despite the world economic malaise over the past five years, global tourism has grown at an average of 5% per annum, a rate that far outpaces economic recovery. And beaches have been prominent in attracting more tourists to travel further than ever before in search of the perfect patch of warm sand. However, growth in arrivals in both the Mediterranean and the Caribbean, the traditional beach hotspots, is almost stagnating, United Nations World Tourism Organization (WTO) figures tell us, while the beaches of Southeast Asia, and Thailand in particular, have enjoyed a huge surge in new visitors.

The Mediterranean region has seen lacklustre annual growth of about 3.7% in tourism numbers since the turn of the millennium, though WTO figures show this now falling, as is the Med's total share of world tourism – predicted to fall from 18% in 2010 to 14.6% in 2030. The Caribbean is faring even worse, with annual growth now barely over 2%, and its total share of global tourism, 2.1% in 2010, predicted to fall to 1.7% by 2030.

None of this can be cheerful news for investors planning new beach resorts in either region.

In stark contrast, however, Southeast Asia has enjoyed huge booms in visitor numbers year-after-year, with its 2013 jump of 12% making it the fastest growing tourist region on the planet. Thailand, clearly the star performer of that region, rose 18% in 2013 and saw a massive rise of 88% in tourist numbers in the five years up to 2013. Beautiful tropical beaches were, by far, the major attraction that brought a total of 26.7 million tourists to Thailand last year (more than the total for the entire Caribbean), allowing it to join the world's top 10 most visited countries for the first time.

Beaches were the biggest attraction in other Southeast Asian countries too, particularly Malaysia and the Philippines, both of which also offer a great diversity of islands with good quality beach resorts. Myanmar , newly opened to the world, is another powerful contender for future market share in beach tourism, with potential to pull countless thousands of visitors away from older, more traditional beach destinations. In the high season of 2014 Myanmar had just 49 hotels and resorts on three beaches along its northwest coast – but all eyes are on the 800 islands in its near-pristine Mergui Archipelago. These virtually uninhabited, stunningly beautiful islands currently have just a single beach resort, but planning for many more is already underway. Expect resorts on amazing tropical beaches to blossom here by the score, or perhaps the hundreds, in coming years.

The new influx of visitors to Southeast Asia's beaches has seen many bypassing and flying right over the famous beaches of the Med. With long distant travel now easier and cheaper than ever before, many once-too-distant destinations of Asia have become quite accessible. For wealthy Western Europeans, favoured guests in most beach resorts, the trip to Southeast Asia is about 2,000 kilometres and a few hours longer than that to the Caribbean – apparently not a big deterrent.

Some analysts believe the natural human lust for new horizons and fresh flavours makes it inevitable that ever-more travellers will head to the diverse countries of Southeast Asia, turning their backs on both the Caribbean and the Mediterranean. These traditional destinations are becoming too familiar for some, and not as 'exotic' as their Asian competitors. Pollution in the Mediterranean and high crime rates in many Caribbean countries are also seen as deterrents that make many would-be visitors look further afield for new beaches.

The inexorable rise of Southeast Asia was further illustrated when Thailand took first place in the recent Global Beachfront Awards , a count of the true beachfront hotels in over 100 countries worldwide. With an amazing 1,250 absolute beachfront accommodations, Thailand overtook the USA (with 1,016 hotels), Mexico (with 943 hotels) and Spain (with 736 hotels), followed by the Philippines in 5th place. Traditional Mediterranean beach countries Greece, Italy and Turkey followed in that order.

The web organization that issued the awards, The Beachfront Club , utilizes hi-tech mapping to pinpoint all true beachfront hotels and resorts on the planet – those that have no road or traffic between the rooms and the water.

The rise of Southeast Asia as a global challenger to the Med and the Caribbean is unlikely to see any slowdown for many years to come. The region is diverse in geography and culture, and the people are exceptionally friendly and welcoming to strangers. Most importantly, the warm, clear seas of Southeast Asia are strewn with thousands of beautiful islands with countless, empty tropical beaches, all waiting for beachfront hotels and near limitless visitors from cold climates seeking a patch of sand in the sun.

While beach tourism will continue to warm up as the global economy does, the competition among the world's beach destinations is already getting hot.

by John Everingham