updated 5/12/2009 1:59:59 PM ET 2009-05-12T17:59:59

World tourism continued its downward slide in 2009, with international tourist arrivals declining by nearly 8 percent because of the global economic crisis, the World Tourism Organization said Tuesday.

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"We are still living in a situation where the depth and the length off this economic challenge is not clear yet," the body's acting Secretary General Taleb Rifai told reporters in Madrid, where the organization is headquartered.

The organization said 117 million tourist arrivals were registered in January and February, 7.7 percent fewer than for the first two months of 2008. The reduction follows a drop of 2 percent in arrivals in the second half of 2008.

It said Europe was the hardest hit region, suffering a decline of 8.4 percent while North America experienced a reduction of 3.4 percent.

Rifai said it was still too early to say what effect the recent outbreak of swine flu would have, given that it had only begun to unfold over the past few weeks.

But he said past experience with health threats, such as the 2002 outbreak of severe acute respiratory disease, or SARS, in Asia, showed tourism is capable of recovering rapidly once a threat is brought under control.

Rifai said the World Tourism Organization expected international tourism to decline by up to 2 percent over the year.

The organization said the figures Tuesday did not include receipts from tourism but that these normally followed the trend of arrivals. It said it would have complete figures in June.

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