Patterns and trends in leisure and tourism

By Matt Burdett, 6 September 2018

Originally published 2 November 2017

On this page, we look at the growth and changing purpose of leisure time for societies in different geographic and developmental contexts. We examine the increase in leisure time in some countries, and why it doesn’t extend to everyone. We also investigate the patterns and trends in the phenomenal growth of world tourism, and begin to question just what we’re measuring when we talk about tourists.

Trends in leisure time

Despite many people working long hours, the average amount of leisure time has been going up in many societies. The graph below shows the average annual hours actually worked per worker for selected countries (OECD, 2017).

1 Actual hours worked OECD.png

The drop in work times means that there has been an increase in leisure time in these countries. This drop in working hours is due to several factors:

  1. Government regulation has limited the number of hours permitted for employers to expect employees to work. For example, the European Union’s Working Time Directive limits work to 48 hours per week (European Commission, 2017).
  2. Increases in wages, especially due to the implementation of minimum wages, meaning fewer hours work will earn the same money. For example, Hong Kong introduced a minimum wage in 2011 that was increased in 2017 (Labour Department, 2017). However, in some societies long working hours are still required. For example, in El Salvador, the minimum wage varies according to the type of work being done and is only US$6.67 per day for picking cotton (Ministerio De Trabajo Y Previsión Social, 2017).
  3. Reduction in costs for basic needs (e.g. food) and luxuries (e.g. computers) reducing the amount of work required.
  4. Greater acceptance of a five-day working week, especially for part-time staff.
  5. Technological developments making non-leisure activities less time consuming, such as having a dishwasher to save time washing dishes.

These factors combine to make it easier for some workers to meet their needs while working fewer hours. However, since the financial crisis of 2009, many individuals have found that they have had to work more because their wages have not increased as fast as inflation.

Societal variation in leisure time


Women typically make up less of the formal workforce than men in most countries, as the map below shows (Pew Research Centre, 2017).

1 Map Women paid Labour PEW research 2017.png

However, there is a leisure time gender divide in most societies, with women typically having less leisure time than men. This is because women are more likely to be involved in informal employment, meaning that they are not counted in many of the statistics of employment. Also, women are more likely to take on the role of homemaker – looking after children, cooking the family meals, and cleaning.

Economic development

High Income Countries (HICs) are more likely to report higher leisure time than Middle and Low Income Countries (MICs and LICs). The graph below is from the World Economic Forum (2016) and shows that many HICs spend much less time at work, yet they earn much more per capita:

1 Leisure time by country GRAPH.png

Reasons why HICs tend to work less include:

  • The way they consider work. Most employment in these countries is ‘formal’ employment – meaning it is taxed, regulated and reported. In non-HICs, work may be formal and therefore reported less accurately.
  • The less money a person has, the more likely they are to need to work more hours to earn more money.
  • Technology: Non-leisure activities that are automated in HICs may be done by hand in less well off societies

The growth in tourism

Tourism is a huge growth industry. The United Nations World Tourism Organisation (UNWTO) reports annually on the numbers of tourists and the impact they have on the economy. In 2016, there were over 1,235 million international tourist arrivals, contributing 10% of global GDP, 7% of global trade and 10% of global employment (UNWTO, 2017). With 300 million more international tourists in 2016 than in 2008, there has been a clear and massive growth in this way of spending leisure time.

Patterns in tourism

This growth has not been evenly spread over time or space. The map below shows the changes in global tourism by region.

Screen Shot 2017-10-29 at 8.32.46 PM.png

  • UNWTO, 2017a. United Nations World Tourism Organisation Annual Report 2016. UNWTO. Madrid.

There are many reasons why some world regions appear to have higher levels of international tourist arrival than others. For example, the European region has many countries in small area. It is easier to travel the distances required to be an international tourist in Europe than, say, the Americas. Also, one reason for international travel is to visit new places. In the Americas, there are large countries (Canada, USA, Brazil etc.) and it’s not necessary to visit another country in order to experience a different environment.

Trends in tourism

Nor has the trend in tourism been smooth. The cumulative graph below shows the variation in world tourism.

Screen Shot 2017-10-29 at 8.40.27 PM.png

  • UNWTO, 2017b. United Nations World Tourism Organisation Tourism Highlights 2017 edition. UNWTO. Madrid.

All regions experience growth, but some will grow faster than others – especially Asia and the Pacific.The reasons for the continued growth in tourism are covered in detail in the page ‘Factors affecting participation’.

However, there there have been dips. For example, in 2009, a significant dip occurred during the global economic crisis as wages and job security caused people to not travel. Other dips include in the early 2000s as terrorism concerns made people not want to travel; and in the early 1990s, the insecurity around the break up of the Soviet Union was a further disincentive.

Reasons for the growth in tourism

There are two main reasons why tourism has grown:

  • Demand: There is a greater demand from people for tourism. As people have higher incomes, and as they have more leisure time, they want to travel to new places. This is also helped by technology such as TV, social media, online advertising, and online booking sites. Meanwhile, diaspora growth has meant that there are more people born in a different country to the one they live in, resulting in more travel for people to visit relatives.
  • Supply: There is a greater supply of tourist facilities worldwide – for example, most countries now have more tourist attractions compared to the past, and there are more hotels, restaurants and so on that make places suitable for tourism. This is sometimes due to a deliberate government policy to encourage tourism. Also, technology has increased the accessibility of new places through better transport and information systems. Also, there is a greater level of international security so tourism is now offered to more destinations worldwide.


European Commission, 2017. Working Conditions – Working Time Directive. Accessed 27th October 2017.

Labour Department, 2017. STATUTORY MINIMUM WAGE. Accessed at 27th October 2017.

Ministerio De Trabajo Y Previsión Social, 2017. Tarifas de Salarios Minimos Vigentes a Partir del 1 de Enero de 2018 [Minimum Wage Schedule Coming Into Effect 1st January 2018] .In Spanish. Accessed 6 September 2018.

OECD, 2017. Average annual hours actually worked per worker. Accessed at 27th October 2017.

Pew Research Centre, 2017. In many countries, at least four-in-ten in the labor force are women. Accessed at 27th October 2017.

UNWTO, 2017a. United Nations World Tourism Organisation Annual Report 2016. UNWTO. Madrid.

UNWTO, 2017b. United Nations World Tourism Organisation Tourism Highlights 2017 edition. UNWTO. Madrid. Accessed 27 January 2018.

World Economic Forum, 2016. Wealthier countries have more leisure time – with one big exception. Accessed at 27th October 2017.

Patterns and trends in leisure and tourism: Learning activities


  1. How many hours do you work per week? [1]
  2. How many hours of leisure time do you have per week? [1]
  3. Suggest how your leisure time (in terms of both duration and activity) might compare to:
    1. A person of the opposite gender [2]
    2. A person at a lower level of economic advantage to you [2]
    3. A person in a low income country (or, if you are in a LIC, a person in a high income country) [2]
  4. Describe the trends in world working hours. [3]
  5. Suggest reasons why there is more leisure time in some countries than others. [4]
  6. Describe the link between earnings and working hours. [3]
  7. Explain why some countries may have longer working hours than others while at the same time having lower incomes. [4]
  8. Outline the importance of tourism to the world economy. [3]
  9. Define ‘international tourist arrival’. [2]
  10. Describe the global distribution of international tourist arrivals. [3]
  11. Suggest why using world regions as a basis for describing the global distribution of tourism may be misleading. [2]
  12. Describe the increase in tourism between 1980 and 2010. [3]
  13. What is the difference between demand for tourist resources and supply of tourist resources? [2]
  14. Briefly suggest why participation in tourism is increasing. [4]

Other tasks

Place the ideas that encourage more leisure time and more tourism into a flow diagram. The one below is an idea to get you started, but you can expand on it in any way you like.

Add detail to each section, including

  • Key idea
  • Evidence
  • Explanation

© Matthew Burdett, 2018. All rights reserved.

All secondary material on this site is clearly referenced and may be subject to copyright restrictions by the original authors. All original material on this page is subject to copyright.