The global economy is suffering from a prolonged downturn brought on by events ranging from fiscal crises in the West to natural disasters here in Southeast Asia. Policy debates worldwide increasingly reflect the need for economic growth and job creation. With global unemployment of 200 million and 40 million people projected to enter the labor force every year, 600 million jobs will need to be created over the next decade.

There’s no single solution for achieving such a daunting task, but the contributions of the Travel & Tourism industry are too often overlooked in the debate over how to create jobs. While conventional sources for employment such as manufacturing and investment get most of the attention, a joint study by the World Travel and Tourism Council (WTTC) and the World Tourism Organization (UNWTO) reveals that Travel & Tourism directly employs 98 million people, more than automotive manufacturing, global communications, mining or financial services. Additionally, the study shows the economic impact of Travel & Tourism in 2011 was $6.3 trillion, or 9.1 percent of the global GDP.

And Travel & Tourism is one sector in which growth does not require significant new government investment.  It can be facilitated simply by removing bureaucratic restrictions already in place, in particular the antiquated processes by which most states issue visas to foreign visitors. Long wait times, the absence of local consular offices and excessive documentation requirements discourage travel, restricting visitor spending and the jobs and growth it generates. Modernizing and simplifying visa applications and approval processes, and introducing new technology such as e-visas, would go a long way to maximizing Travel & Tourism’s payoff to local economies.

For the past year, the World Economic Forum’s Aviation, Travel and Tourism Council has been working to promote e-visas worldwide.  The Council has produced a “Call to Action” manifesto that highlights the opportunities that e-visas provide, and has made key recommendations to improve existing visa policies as a bridge toward a liberalized e-visa regime. Through these efforts, and in conjunction the WTTC/UNWTO study, the Council hopes to persuade leaders in Southeast Asia and other regions of the world of the economic benefits of modernized visa programs.

The good news is that some Southeast Asian nations have already identified collaboration and improved technology as two of the most important means of updating their visa programs and expanding the Travel & Tourism sector.  Thailand and Cambodia began offering a combined tourist visa this past February, with plans to expand the program to include Vietnam and Laos by the end of the year. Such cooperative efforts by neighboring states make travel more convenient and thus more attractive to potential visitors. At their January meeting, the ASEAN Tourism Ministers set an even higher bar for regional collaboration by pledging their support for an ASEAN common visa, with the hopes of having a plan ready for consideration by the 2015 ASEAN Summit. We applaud this effort. A common visa for the 10 ASEAN States will likely have beneficial economic effects similar to those experienced by the European States involved in the Schengen visa program.

With respect to technology, this region already has experience with accepting visa applications online.  Cambodia has an e-visa and Myanmar unveiled its own e-visa in March.  A region-wide e-visa system would definitely help Southeast Asia stand out as a tourist destination.

Travel & Tourism already enjoys what any industry needs to generate growth: a product in high demand. The people of Southeast Asia can take advantage by removing unnecessary barriers between that product and a potential customer base of tens of millions of 21st century travelers.

Author: Brian Havel, Professor of Law, De Paul University, USA and member of the Global Agenda Council on Aviation, Travel and Tourism, World Economic Forum

Image: A Swiss border guard checks a passport at the Euroairport in Basel-Mulhouse February 7, 2012. REUTERS/Pascal Lauener