Today is World Tourism Day, and I can’t think of a better way to ring in the fall season than celebrating the art of tourism around the globe.  From travelers visiting the U.S. to Americans exploring other parts of the world, tourism is an economic sector defined by everything from leisure to education to crossing things off of one’s “bucket list.”

World Tourism Day was founded by the United Nations’ World Tourism Organization in 1980 and has been celebrated on September 27th every year since then.  According to the UNWTO, the purpose of World Tourism Day is to “foster awareness among the international community of the importance of tourism and its social, cultural, political and economic value.”  This year the official celebrations are being held in Maspalomas, Spain, a town located on the island of Gran Canaria (off the coast of Western Sahara, a desert territory that used to be a Spanish province but has been mainly under Moroccan control since 1979).

These days tourism is much more attainable by the masses, thanks in large part to the development of transportation technology.  It is no longer necessary to spend months aboard a cramped ship to get to a different continent (or risk suffering from ailments such as cholera or scurvy in the process).  It is now possible to hop on a plane, take a nap or watch a few movies, and wake up in a foreign land.

More and more Americans are taking advantage of the modern sensibilities of transportation these days too.  Contrary to prevailing stereotypes that Americans do not generally venture out beyond their own borders, the U.S. State Department reported at the beginning of 2012 that the number of passport holders has been steadily increasing over the years.  In 1989 only 7 million American passports were in circulation (less than 3% of the population), a figure which climbed to 48 million in 2000 and hit 110 million last year.  With around 313 million comprising the U.S. population nowadays, that means that more than one-third of Americans currently hold passports.

As someone who applied for her first passport as a teenager, it is still a treasured object among my possessions.  That passport was the key to my first trip overseas, my first study abroad program, holidays with friends, and many other travel adventures in which I pretty much took a breath and said, “here we go.”  It allowed me to see different parts of the world, meet different people, study different languages, and get into some situations that make for decent stories to tell friends over coffee.  Thanks to having a passport, I’ve been on a Egyptian train that derailed on the way back to Cairo from Aswan, got punched in the back by a crazed man on a train headed to Chennai, India (I guess I just don’t have great luck with trains), almost lost my guide in the jungles of Cambodia, had schoolgirls in a rural village in Korea chase me because they thought I was Britney Spears (all blondes look the same I suppose), and other adventures that would not have otherwise been possible.

Record numbers of Americans are enjoying the adventures made available to them through tourism as well.  According to the U.S. Office of Travel & Tourism Industries, 8.1 million Americans traveled abroad in the first two months of 2012, a 6% jump from the same time period in 2011.  Europe of course was a popular destination, but the largest increases in travel figures were actually to Central America, the Middle East, and the Caribbean.  Who says Americans aren’t adventurous?

Whether a seasoned or aspiring traveler, World Tourism Day is an opportunity to recognize the role which tourism plays in not just international relations between countries, but also in cultural and societal relations between individuals.  Tourism benefits countries economically, socially, and politically in that we can both invest in each other’s economies (anyone staying in a hotel or buying a souvenir in a foreign country is contributing, after all) and in each other.

Happy World Tourism Day!