B.7 – Tourism and Transport

Author: Dr. Jean-Paul Rodrigue

Tourism, as an economic activity, relies on transportation to bring tourists to destinations, and transportation can be part of the touristic experience.

1. The Emergence of the Tourism Industry

Since the 1970s where tourism became increasingly affordable, the number of international tourists has more than doubled. The expansion of international tourism has a large impact on the discipline of transport geography since it links traffic generation, interactions at different scales (from the local to the global), and the related transportation modes and terminals. As of 2016, 1.2 billion international tourist receipts were accounted for, representing more than 10% of the global population. The industry is also a large employer accounting for 10% of all the global employment; 30 tourist visits are usually associated with one job. 30% of the global trade of services is accounted for by tourism. Tourism dominantly takes place in Europe and North America, but geographical diversification is taking place.

Traveling has always been an important feature, but its function has substantially evolved. Historically, travelers were explorers and merchants looking to learn about regions, potential markets and to find goods and resources. The risks and exoticism associated also attracted the elite that could afford the large expenses and the time required to travel to other remote destinations. Many wrote realistic and even imaginary travel accounts. As time moved on and as transportation became more reliable, traveling became a more mundane activity taking place in an organized environment; tourism. In the modern world, traveling is more centered around annual holidays and can be reasonably well predicted.

As an economic activity, tourism is characterized by a high demand level of elasticity. As transport costs are significant for international transportation, cost fluctuations strongly influence demand. Therefore, transport is a key element in the tourism industry. The demand in international and even national transport infrastructures implies a large number of people to be transported in an efficient, fast, and inexpensive manner. It requires heavy investments and complex organization. Well-organized terminals and planned schedules are essential in promoting adequate transportation facilities for tourists, notably since the industry is growing at a fast rate.

Transport is the cause and the effect of the growth of tourism. First, the improved facilities have incited tourism, and the expansion of tourism has prompted the development of transport infrastructure. Accessibility is the main function behind the basics of tourism transport. In order to access sought-after destinations, tourists have a range of transportation modes that are often used in a sequence. Air transport is the primary mode for international tourism, which usually entails travel over long distances. Growth rates of international air traffic are pegged to growth rates of international tourism.

Transport policies and national regulations can influence destinations available to tourists. One dimension concerns the openness to tourism through travel visa restrictions, which vary substantially depending on the countries of origin of tourists. Unsurprisingly, travelers from developed countries, particularly Europe, face the least restrictions, while travelers from developing countries face a much more stringent array of restrictions. Another dimension concerns the provision of infrastructure. If the public sector does not cope with the demand in terms of transport infrastructures, the tourist industry might be impaired in its development. However, land transport networks in various countries are designed to meet the needs of commercial movements that tourism requires.

Tourism usually contributes enough to the local economy that governments are more than willing to improve road networks or airport facilities, especially in locations with limited economic opportunities other than tourism. There are, however, significant differences in the amount of spending per type of mode, namely between cruise and air transport tourism. Cruise shipping tourism provides much less revenue than a tourist brought by air travel. A significant reason is that cruise lines are capturing as much tourism expenses within their ships as possible (food, beverages, entertainment, shopping) and have short port calls, often less than a day. Tourists arriving by air transport usually stay several days at the same location and use local amenities.

2. Means and Modes

Tourism uses all the standard transportation modes since travelers rely on existing passenger transport systems, from local transit systems to global air transportation.

  • Car traveling is usually an independent transport conveyance where the traveler decides the route and the length of the trip. It is usually cheaper since road fees are not directly paid and provided as a public. It is the only transportation mode that does not require transfers, in the sense that the whole journey, from door to door can be achieved. Along major highway corridors, service activities such as restaurants, gas stations, and hotels have agglomerated to service the traffic, many of which touristic. Car transport is the dominant mode in world tourism (77% of all journeys), notably because of advantages such as flexibility, price, and independence. Tourists will often rent cars to journey within their destinations, which has triggered an active clustering of car rental companies adjacent to main transport terminals (airports, train stations) and touristic venues.
  • Coach traveling uses the same road network as cars. Coaches are well suited for local mass tourism but can be perceived as a nuisance if in too large numbers since they require a large amount of parking space. They can be used for short duration local tours (hours) but also can be set for multi-days journeys where the coach is the conveyance moving tourists from one resort to another.
  • Rail travel was the dominant form of passenger transport before the age of the automobile. The railway network usually reflects more the commercial needs of the national economy then holiday tourist flows which can make it a less preferred choice as a traveling mode. The railway systems of several countries, notably in Europe, have seen massive investments for long-distance routes and high-speed services. Due to the scenery or the amenities provided, rail transportation can also be a tourist destination in itself. Several short rail lines that no longer had commercial potential have been converted for tourism.
  • Air transport is by far the most effective transport mode. Notably because of prices, only 12.5% of the tourists travel by plane, but for international travel, this share is around 40%. Air transport has revolutionized the geographical aspect of distances; the most remote areas can now be reached any journey around the world can be measured in terms of hours of traveling. Business travelers are among the biggest users of airline facilities, but low-cost air carriers have attracted a significant market segment mainly used for tourism.
  • Cruises are mainly providing short sea journeys of about a week. Cruising has become a significant tourist industry. Cruise ships act as floating resorts where guests can enjoy amenities and entertainment while being transported along a chain of port calls. The international market for cruising was about 22.2 million tourists in 2015, which involves an annual growth rate above 7% since 1990. The main cruise markets are the Caribbean and the Mediterranean, with Alaska and Northern Europe fjords also popular during the summer season. This industry is characterized by a high level of market concentration with a few companies, such as Carnival Corporation and Royal Caribbean Cruises who account for about 70% of the market. The impacts of cruising on the local economy are mitigated as the strategy of cruising companies is to retain as much income as possible. This implies that tourists spend most of their money on the cruise ship itself (gift shops, entertainment, casinos, bars, etc.) or on-island facilities owned by cruise shipping companies.

3. Mass Tourism and Mass Transportation

Tourism transport can be divided into two categories:

  • Independent means of travel; controlled by individual tourists who book them on their own. This mainly involves the private automobile, but also mass conveyances that are booked to travel on an individual basis such as regularly scheduled flights, rail connections, ferries, and even cruises.
  • Mass travel; where tourists travel in organized groups. The most common form involves chartered buses and flights used for this single purpose.

When tourism was mainly for the elite, independent means of travel prevailed. However, the emergence of mass tourism and the significant revenue it provides for local economies required the setting of mass transportation systems and specialized firms such as travel agencies organizing travel on behalf of their customers. These firms were able to take advantage of their pricing power being able to negotiate large volumes of passengers for carriers and hotels. Some were even able to become air carriers, such as Thomas Cook Airlines and Air Transat, which are major charterers in their respective markets. Paradoxically, the growth of online travel booking services has favored the re-emergence of independent means of travel since an individual is able to book complex travel services, including transport and hotel accommodations. Thus, the segmentation of the travel industry is linked with the segmentation of the supporting transport systems.

The seasonality of tourism has an important impact on the use and allocation of transportation assets.

  • Air transport has a notable seasonality where tourism results in variations in demand, summer being the peak season. Because of this seasonality and the high cost of acquiring additional assets to accommodate peak demand, the airline industry has pricing power during peak touristic demand. This also leads the seasonal charter services to pick up the potential unmet demand. During the winter, charterers focus on subtropical destinations (e.g. Caribbean, Mexico), while during the summer there is more a focus on the European market.
  • Cruises also have a seasonality where many cruise lines are repositionning their assets according to variations in the destination preferences. During winter months, the Caribbean is an important destination market, while during the summer, destinations like the Mediterranean, Alaska, and Norway are more prevalent.

4. Covid-19 and its Impacts

Related Topics


  • Graham, A. and F. Dobruszkes (eds) (2019) Air Transport – A Tourism Perspective, Amsterdam: Elsevier.
  • World Economic Forum (2017) The travel & tourism competitiveness report 2017, World Economic Forum.