In a move recognising the global significance of the tourism industry, the World Tourism Organisation and the United Nations recently agreed to elevate it to the status of a UN specialist agency. The upgrading from a UN-related agency will come at the WTO's annual general assembly, which will be held in October in Beijing. The WTO's secretary-general, Francesco Frangialli, told yesterday's conference in Hong Kong that the elevation of the agency's status meant the global community thinks tourism is just as important as health and education. By becoming a specialist agency of the UN, the WTO will have the same status as bodies such as the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (Unesco), the World Health Organisation, the International Labour Organisation and others, Mr Frangialli said. 'It is a recognition ... for the tourism sector in general that now the international community is conscious of the importance of this sector,' he said. The WTO estimates the tourism industry is worth US$480 billion a year. Announcing the agreement last week, Mr Frangialli said: 'Overcoming difficulties, war, terrorism, natural disasters and epidemics, it [tourism] has become an inescapable part of our time. This is precisely what we intend to recognise in adopting a new instrument that is more closely in line with the realities of the present day.' The WTO had been considering moving its annual meeting from Beijing when the Sars outbreak flared up, but decided not to. As the tourism industry in Asia dusts itself off after the battering it received from Sars, the decision could be seen as a vote of confidence in the mainland's ability to control the virus. 'We had decided two years ago that our next general assembly would take place in mid-October in Beijing,' Mr Frangialli said. 'Of course, with the Sars epidemic, would it be possible to maintain that?' Mr Frangialli said the group decided to wait and see how the situation developed. After seeing that there had been no new cases anywhere in the world since June 15, the WTO decided to press on with the forum. The annual meeting is expected to attract 1,000 delegates from the more than 130 countries. The delegates will include more than 100 tourism ministers and businesspeople. The Madrid-based WTO is an intergovernmental agency whose goals are to promote responsible, sustainable and universally accessible tourism. Mr Frangialli said he expected the tourism industry to recover in the second half of the year or early next year, as more travellers start flying again because of pent-up demand. Many business meetings and conventions have been rescheduled to the second half of the year or the beginning of 2004, he said. 'There will be an increased number of travellers, not only for normal travel but travel that has been postponed, and that now will be planned again.'