Global tourist figures inflated in 2011 regardless of the economic crisis, the Arab spring and Japanese disasters, and will hit one billion in 2012, a UN body said on Monday.
The number of international tourist arrivals grew by 4.4 percent to 980 million in 2011, up from 940 million in 2010, the Madrid-based United Nations World Tourism Organization said in an annual survey.
But while the number of visitors to Europe surged as civil conflicts drove many tourists away from sunspots in the Middle East and North Africa in 2011, the overall recovery that began in 2010 appears to be losing steam, it said.
World tourism had recovered from its worst year in 60 years in 2009, the body's secretary general Taleb Rifai said, with visitor numbers up 6.7 percent in 2010. The 2011 figure was within the body's 4.0-5.0 percent forecast.
Now, the organisation forecasts international tourism will grow further in 2012 although at a slower rate.
"Arrivals are expected to increase by 3.0 to 4.0 percent, reaching the historic one billion mark by the end of the year," it said.
Asia and Africa are expected to post the greatest growth in tourist numbers this year, with the agency predicting tourist arrivals in the two regions will rise by 4.0 to 6.0 percent.
The world's regions had mixed fortunes last year.
Europe recorded an extra 29 million visitors and a total of 503 million -- six percent higher than 2010, reflecting the sharpest rise of all the regions.
But Africa, with 50 million visitors overall, logged no growth in tourist arrivals in 2011 after posting gains of 6.0 percent in the previous year.
"The gain of two million by sub-Saharan destinations (7.0 percent) was offset by the losses in North Africa" of 12 percent, the report said.
Visits to the Middle East declined eight percent, with the region losing an estimated 5.0 million international tourist arrivals compared to 2010, for a total of 56 million.
But some destinations in the region, such as Saudi Arabia, Oman and the United Arab Emirates, continued to sustain steady growth in tourist arrivals.
North Africa posted the biggest decline in visitor numbers, with the region drawing 16.4 million tourists, a drop of 12.0 percent.
Asia saw the growth in visitor numbers slow from 13 percent in 2010 to 6.0 percent in 2011 after the tsunami that struck Japan in March and the consequent nuclear alert.
The rate of growth in visitors to the Americas halved to 4.0 percent.
"Contrary to previous years, growth was higher in advanced economies (5.0 percent) than in emerging ones (3.7 percent), due largely to the strong results in Europe, and the setbacks in the Middle East and North Africa," the report said.
Rifai said the overall growth in a sector that accounts for five percent of the world's gross domestic product was potentially good news in hard economic times, however.
"These results are encouraging, coming as they do at a time in which we urgently need levers to stimulate growth and job creation," he said in the report.