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1 Sep, 2003

Tourism Will Need More Migrant-Workers, Posing New Challenges and Problems

A low profile meeting at the UN Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific last week 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 the travel & tourism industries of Thailand and the Asia-Pacific countries.

For example, Thailand is competing with Indonesia and the Philippines 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.

For example, two regional 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.

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 also create huge demand for migrant workers to staff the hotels, airlines and convention centres emerging there. Most of these jobs will be sourced in Asia.

Indeed, 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.

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.

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