updated 3/11/2009 3:49:43 PM ET 2009-03-11T19:49:43

The United Nations' tourism organization said Wednesday that international vacation travel could drop up to 2 percent in 2009 as the economic crisis worsens.

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Europe's broad tourism industry would likely see the largest drop in visitors, but that small countries dependent on foreign spending might suffer most, said Talib Rifai, secretary general of the U.N. World Tourism Organization.

Approximately 924 million tourists traveled across international borders in 2008, Rifai said — or 2 percent more than the previous year, though the numbers fell sharply in the last six months as economic worry prompted people to curb spending.

Rifai called the increase modest compared with the "bullish years" of 2004-2007, when growth averaged 7 percent.

"This is not a tourism crisis. It's an economic crisis that spills over into tourism," Rifai said in Berlin, where he was attending a tourism trade fair.

Still, he said his organization was predicting a drop of as much as 2 percent this year, based on the current situation.

A spokesman for the U.N. organization, however, said travel could fall by as much as 5 percent. "That's not an official UNWTO position, but I'm being very straight with you," Geoffrey Lipman told reporters.

He said small countries whose gross domestic product is 70 percent to 80 percent dependent on service industries including tourism were most vulnerable. He and Rifai both declined to identify specific countries.

Rifai said Europe's likely decline could be partially offset by a boon in new tourism from China. Some 45 million Chinese traveled abroad in 2008, and China hopes to double that number by 2012.

"Their government has said: We will send more tourists to Europe. We will help keep European tour operators strong," Rifai said.

He said Europeans and Americans were also likely to keep their plans to travel abroad.

"In the past 20 years, travel has become more of a right," he said. "The right to move around. The right to relax."

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