International tourist numbers expanded in 2011 despite the economic crisis, the Arab spring and Japanese disasters, and will hit one billion this year, a UN body said Monday.

The number of international tourist arrivals grew by 4.4 percent to 980 million in 2011, up from 940 million in 2010, the Madrid-based United Nations World Tourism Organization said in an annual survey.

But while the number of visitors to Europe surged in 2011 as civil conflicts drove many tourists away from sunspots in the Middle East and North Africa, the overall recovery that began in 2010 appears to be losing steam, it said.

World tourism saw its worst year in 60 years in 2009, but recovered in 2010 with visitor numbers up 6.7 percent, said the body's secretary general Taleb Rifai. The 2011 figure was within the body's 4.0-5.0 percent forecast.

The organisation forecasts that international tourism will grow further in 2012, but at a slower rate.

"Arrivals are expected to increase by 3.0 to 4.0 percent, reaching the historic one billion mark by the end of the year," it said.

The world's regions had mixed fortunes last year.

Europe recorded an extra 29 million visitors and a total of 503 million -- six percent higher than 2010, reflecting the sharpest rise of all the regions.

But Africa, with 50 million visitors overall, logged no growth in tourist arrivals in 2011 after posting gains of 6.0 percent in the previous year.

"The gain of two million by sub-Saharan destinations (7.0 percent) was offset by the losses in North Africa" of 12 percent, the report said.

Visits to the Middle East declined eight percent, with the region losing an estimated 5.0 million international tourist arrivals compared to 2010, for a total of 56 million.

But some destinations in the region, such as Saudi Arabia, Oman and the United Arab Emirates, continued to sustain steady growth in tourist arrivals.

Asia saw its growth in visitor numbers slow from 13 percent in 2010 to 6.0 percent in 2011 after the tsunami that struck Japan in March and the consequent nuclear alert.

The rate of growth in visitors to the Americas halved to 4.0 percent.

"Contrary to previous years, growth was higher in advanced economies (5.0 percent) than in emerging ones (3.7 percent), due largely to the strong results in Europe, and the setbacks in the Middle East and North Africa," the report said.

Rifai said that the overall growth in a sector that accounts for five percent of the world's gross domestic product was potentially good news in hard economic times, however.

"These results are encouraging, coming as they do at a time in which we urgently need levers to stimulate growth and job creation," he said in the report.