Dollars are U.S. unless stated otherwise.

Gold still glisters in global trade

Cultural goods traded across the world -- everything from books to video games and jewellery -- doubled in value to $212.8 billion from 2004 to 2013, according to a UNESCO report issued on 10 March 2016.

That's maybe not a surprise. But nearly half of that was gold jewellery. And China is by far the biggest player on the cultural goods scene.

book cover

China accounted for $60.1 billion of the exports in 2013, compared with $17.9 billion for the United States. And Turkey and India entered the top ten of exporters. The U.S. remained the largest importer of cultural goods. Malaysia also emerged as a leading exporter.

The report speaks of "the dematerialization of some cultural goods." However, gold jewellery exports accounted for more than $100 billion in exports, its increased share (+271% over the decade), reflecting the belief that gold can be a safe haven in times of crisis. The UNESCO Institute for Statistics (UIS) also noted that statues, statuettes (+180% together) and paintings (+80) increased their share and reached $19 billion in 2013.

Music, movies and newspapers down, books and video games up

The export of cultural goods represented 1.22% of all exports of goods in 2013, which was the average for this decade, the report says. Imports totalled $168.3 billion (p16).

Trade in recorded music declined by 27%. International trade in movies declined even more, by 88%. Newspapers lost 9% internationally (hardly an indicative figure of the printed press's decline). But the international book trade increased by 20% and video games climbed by 140%.

The report also notes: "Audiovisual services are increasingly becoming the most important cultural service traded."

trade by country

The 2008 crisis and after

The report includes a section on the 2008 economic crisis and its impact. Like the international goods trade, the world trade in cultural goods "decreased significantly in 2009" though not to the same level (16) -- "13.5% compared to a decrease of 22.4% for the exports of total goods".

But imports dropped precipitously and the growth in trade slowed in 2011 and recorded a 0,6% decrease in 2013.

Nevertheless, Silvia Montoya, Director of the UIS, speaks of "the critical role cultural industries play in today's global economy."

A 400% gain in value for countries like China

Looking at who exports most, the report notes:

The overall share of cultural exports from high-income economies significantly decreased over this period [2004-2013], dropping from 80% of total exports of cultural goods in 2004 to 58% in 2012, and remaining stable in 2013.

Meanwhile, upper-middle-income economies more than doubled their share of exports of cultural goods, from 16% in 2004 to 35% in 2013, while multiplying by four their value in cultural goods from US$17.2 billion in 2004 to US$74.8 billion in 2013.

Much of this is due to exports from China. The impact of the financial and economic crisis of 2008, which affected mostly high-income and upper-middle-income economies, is reflected in the export of cultural goods, which decreased by 20% and 19%, respectively, in these groupings (21).

country map

Tough times for poorest countries

It also looks at the difficulties facing the poorest countries, even producing attractive craft products:

Low-income economies represented less than 1% of global exports of cultural goods during the period, with only a 0.05% share in 2013 (or US$102 million). Low-income economies usually have limited capacity to export their cultural goods, which rarely reach the international market.

For the lower-middle-income countries such as India cultural goods represent a larger proportion of that trade (6.9%) than their share of the world's total goods trade (6.1%). The share of low-income economies in global trade was almost negligible in 2013, with a 0.05% share in global exports of cultural goods compared to 0.25" for all goods (22). Burundi recorded $10,000 in exports of cultural goods (25).

"Algeria also stood out as importing a relatively high amount of cultural goods, while its exports in cultural goods were quite minimal," the report notes (25).


The Institute is finding it more and more challenging to gather its statistics. The U.N. News Centre writes:

"As more and more cultural goods move from the tangible to the digital, the report notes that obtaining accurate data on the flow of these goods is becoming more challenging. Finding new sources of data and cooperation between international organizations in the promotion and improvement of cultural trade statistics, especially in the developing world, will help improve the understanding of the real contribution of the trade in cultural goods to the global economy."


U.N. News Centre 10 March 2016: Cultural goods remain economic driver in digital age – UNESCO report

UIS news release: New report on the global flow of cultural goods in the digital age

UIS Report (pdf)

Infographic (pdf)

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