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28 Aug, 2003

The Role Of Migration In Travel

A low profile meeting at the UN Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (ESCAP) in Bangkok this week has focussed attention on one of the most significant elements of the global travel industry: Migration patterns.

1. THE ROLE OF MIGRATION IN TRAVEL: A relatively low-key meeting of experts in migration issues in Bangkok this week has thrown light on a critical, but almost totally ignored, sector of global travel & tourism.

2. KERALA ECONOMY THRIVES ON MIGRANT REMITTANCES: The Indian state of Kerala has 1.1 million migrants working in the Middle East. Their travel requirements alone contribute healthily to the bottom line of many airlines.



A low profile meeting at the UN Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (ESCAP) in Bangkok this week has focussed attention on one of the most significant elements of the global travel industry: Migration patterns.

The travel industry is a major beneficiary of the huge numbers of migrants, mainly job-seekers, on the move as a result of poverty, economic disparities and globalisation. Migration travel generates billions of dollars in revenues for airlines and transportation companies. Its darker side, illegal migration, is also a major reason for imposition of stringent visa policies that impede genuine travel for holiday and leisure.

UN figures presented at the experts group meeting on Migration & Development estimated 174.5 million migrants scattered world-wide, or about 2.9% of the world’s population. Of these, Europe is estimated to have 56 million migrants, the Asia-Pacific 55.5 million and North America 40.8 million.

Ms Thelma Kay, chief of ESCAP’s newly established Emerging Social Issues Division, said migration has increased rapidly in the Asia-Pacific region in the last few years. Major countries of origin are Bangladesh, India, Indonesia, Nepal, Pakistan, the Philippines and Sri Lanka while major destinations are Australia, Hong Kong, Japan, South Korea, New Zealand and Singapore.

She said the major reasons for migration are the widening levels of economic development between the rich and poor countries, as well as demographic changes such as the low growth rates of working age population in destination countries as against high growth in the source countries.

Papers presented at the meeting stressed the significance of what is becoming a “broad and complex issue.” It was noted, for example, that most of the migrants are women who are in demand as domestic helpers, nurses and factory workers.

At the same time, it was recognised that migrant workers play an important role in economic development. Ms Kay said worker remittances comprised 8.2% of Gross National Product in the Philippines, 6.3% in Sri Lanka, 3.8% in Bangladesh and as high 2.4% of GNP in even large economies like India. The recent SARS scare also highlighted the health impact of global migrant movements, especially in terms of HIV/AIDS and other sexually-transmitted diseases.

The impact on the travel industry was underscored. A paper by Ms Supang Chantavanich, Professor of Sociology at Chulalongkorn University, noted the serious problem of Thai entertainment workers and illegal migrants in Japan, most of whom enter by using a tourist or student visa or by claiming to be on a honeymoon with a Japanese husband.

Another paper on Indian migrants abroad estimated about 16.1 million Indians and people of Indian origin living in 133 countries. These include 1.6 million in Malaysia, one million in South Africa, 1.2 million in the UK and 1.67 million in the United States and just under a million in the UAE. Indians are also the top migrants in terms of remittances, totalling US$ 11 billion in 1999, according to a World Bank report. The Philippines was next with US$ 7 billion.

The expert group meeting provided food for thought on a broad range of issues of importance to Asia-Pacific travel & tourism.

For example, Thailand, Indonesia and the Philippines are competing to attract a new kind of migrant, long-stay visitors, by offering special extended visa privileges. This is designed to attract ageing retirees fleeing the rich countries due to the cold weather and higher cost of living.

Globalisation and increased investment by multinational companies is also swelling the region’s expatriate population, many of whom are white-collar executives and potential targets of marketing campaigns for business, leisure and conventions travel.

Two Asia-Pacific cities with large up-market expatriate populations are Hong Kong and Singapore. By recalculating the arrivals to Thailand by nationality and residence from both these cities in 2002, it can be estimated that Thailand received 190,000 expatriates from Hong Kong and about 136,000 from Singapore. Expats are not only heavy-duty travellers themselves but also lead to a huge volume of VFR traffic.

Regional countries are also trying to make use of their migrant populations abroad to act as tourism ‘ambassadors’. The Tourism Authority of Thailand is attempting to do this with the large number of Thai restaurants abroad; ditto the Philippines with its legions of musicians and entertainers, albeit with less success than Thailand.

The focus on developing travel & tourism in the Middle East will lead to more demand for migrant workers to staff the hotels, airlines and convention centres emerging there. Most of these jobs will be sourced in Asia. Labour and migrant traffic is an important part of the revenue mix for many airlines, especially to and from the Middle East and South Asia (see story below).

The picture is not always rosy. Migration can lead to racial and ethnic tensions such as in Australia when former One Nation party leader Pauline Hanson raised a major controversy with her anti-immigration views. Campaigning in the 1998 Queensland State elections, Mrs Hanson told voters that Asian immigrants were bringing disease and crime into Australia and that immigration should be halted until all Australians had a job. The resulting publicity created a marketing headache for the Australian Tourism Commission at a time when it was trying to promote the 2000 Olympics and position itself in Asia as a friendly, multi-racial country.

Earlier this month, Mrs Hanson was sentenced to three years in prison for electoral fraud.

For better or for worse, researchers say migration is here to stay. According to Mr Dang Nguyen Anh, head of the department of Population Studies in Hanoi, economic globalisation will see continued increases in Asian migration and the critical concern is how to maximise the benefits and minimise the risks for both migrants and their families.



The Indian state of Kerala has two international airports, Trivandrum and Cochin. Of the 11 international cities served by Trivandrum, eight are in the Arabian Gulf countries. Of the seven international cities served by Cochin, six are in the Gulf. Together these include Dubai, Abu Dhabi, Dhahran, Muscat, Sharjah, Doha, Kuwait, Bahrain and Riyadh. Airlines like Air India, Indian Airlines, Gulf Air, Qatar Airways and Emirates plying these routes report that they are among their most profitable.

The reason for this linkage is simple — to serve the 1.1 million migrants from Kerala living and working in the Gulf region. According to research studies presented at the UN seminar, Keralites comprise 35% of all the Indians working in the Gulf. In 1999-2000, they and the merely 40,000 other Keralite migrants in non-Gulf countries remitted US$ 3.15 billion to the state, up from US$ 1.2 billion in 1993-94. Remittances are estimated to comprise 22.6% of the state’s GDP. This captive market generates huge air-traffic between India and the Gulf as nearly all the migrants get home-leave at least once in two years, usually paid for by the employer.

Indeed, according to the study by Mr Irudaya Rajan, an associate fellow at the Kerala-based Centre for Development Studies, migration has become all-pervasive in the economic and social life in the state. “Almost all families in Kerala are affected by migration to the Gulf region in one way or the other. Migration is affecting every facet of life in Kerala, economic, social, demographic, political and even religious.”

The study quoted the state’s own research as saying, 21% of Kerala households had at least one emigrant. Among the fourteen districts of Kerala, Malappuram (a predominant Muslim area) has a migration prevalence rate (MPR, the ratio of emigrants to the number of households) of 49 per 100 households. One out of two households in Malappuram district had an emigrant in 1998.

Saudi Arabia alone accounted for nearly 40% of the Keralite migrants in the Gulf in 1998. Outside the Arab world, the principal destination was the US which accounted for 2.2% of the total emigrants. The percentage of females among emigrants accounted for just 9% in Kerala. The average age of emigrants in Kerala is 27 years for males and 21 years for females.

Households with an emigrant receive both remittances as cash and in kind. According to a survey, 80% of emigrant households reported having received cash remittances and 50% of them received several items in kind ù clothing, ornaments and jewellery, electric and electronic gadgets such as television, radio, etc.

Says the study, “Migration has provided the single-most dynamic factor in the otherwise dismal scenario of Kerala in the last quarter of the twentieth century. àKerala has become part of the Gulf countries, if not geographically and politically, but very much so economically, socially, and culturally. What happens in the Gulf countries have repercussions in Kerala; and what happens in Kerala have, in turn, their repercussions in the GuIf countries.”

The study says that migration has been one of the positive outcomes of the Kerala model of development. “The State’s dynamic social development in the past half a century and the relative stagnant (sic) in its productive sectors have created ideal conditions for an acceleration of migration from the state.”

The impact on purchasing power is also obvious. Conspicuous consumption is a hallmark of a Kerala emigrant, says the study. Emigrants become accustomed to the use of many new durable consumer goods while abroad. When many of these goods were unavailable locally, they brought them on return home. As most of these goods are now locally available, the higher purchasing power of migrant households enables them to acquire these goods more frequently and effortlessly than non-migrants could.

About 54% of the emigrant households, as against 34% of non-migrant households, had a television set. About 40% of the emigrant households owned refrigerators, but only 13% of the non-migrant households did. Analysis of the percentage of households possessing specific consumer durables by duration of emigration leads to similar conclusion: the longer the duration of emigration, higher the proportion of households possessing a car, a television, a telephone or all of them.

A large number of emigrant households used a significant part of the remittances they received for education of their children. At the same time, a migration has helped the unemployment decline by about 3 percentage points, from 14% to 11 per cent in 1998. This has had a very significant impact on the proportion of population below the poverty line, which declined by over 3 percentage points as a result of remittances. The decline in poverty was the largest among Muslims (6 percentage points).

Migration is not without its social consequences. Because most of the migrants are men, nearly a million married women in Kerala are living away from their husbands. This causes several hardships such as loneliness; added responsibilities; adverse effect on children’s education; debt incurred to finance emigration; increased anxiety, and financial gains being not up to expectation, the study found.

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