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Obituaries for letters are premature

Mail traffic is decreasing, but Santa Claus still receives bags of letters each year


Sending letters may not be in vogue but on World Post Day the Universal Postal Union (UPU) says that delivering mail the traditional way still has a future.

With mail traffic decreasing, the Bern-based organisation - a specialised agency of the United Nations - warns that postal services around the world have to adapt and embrace new forms of communication.

Since 2000 both domestic and international letter-post volumes have spiralled downwards, a trend that some experts say will continue into 2008.

Between 2000 and 2004, domestic letter traffic declined worldwide by an average of 0.3 per cent a year. During the same period, international mail dropped by 5.8 per cent annually, according to UPU data.

Ken McKeown, director of markets at the UPU, told swissinfo that it was obvious that people were posting fewer letters.

"People are changing from traditional ways of sending letters or printed matter by mail to advanced forms of electronic communication. Individuals are more likely to send letters by email," he said.

However, it's not all gloom and doom for postal services.

"New forms of communication and the internet are actually providing a boom to the post. The internet is providing a lot of revenue through sales of goods through online retailers, as many packages are entering the mail system," McKeown pointed out.


One way that the UPU is helping postal organisations around the world to face the future is providing support to develop their web services.

Paul Donohoe, manager of the UPU's e-business programme, told swissinfo that about 70 per cent of the world's posts already offer their services on the internet, amongst them Swiss Post.

"Swiss Post is very advanced in some of the services it offers," said Donohoe. "It has a digital signature service where you can create registered mail online and have that securely sent from your computer to any mail box in Switzerland."

He explained that his programme was using examples provided by developed countries to help other nations catch up.

"We're... trying to help the other 30 per cent to understand what they should be doing in terms of planning and future strategies," he said.

Developing countries face a number of barriers when trying to set up an internet platform.

"Proficiency with computer systems is not strong in many underdeveloped countries. The UPU is looking at ways to educate postal services and their workers in this field and to show them how to launch their services on their market," Donohoe told swissinfo.

Last rites?

As to whether the letter is truly dead, McKeown remains cautious.

"I'm not going to predict the death of the letter just yet. In emerging economies, such as India, China and Brazil, among others, letter mail still has huge potential," he said.

This potential is linked to economic growth.

"Our research has shown that such growth is good for letter-mail volumes; as these emerging economies grow, so too will business and the need for mail to support economic growth," McKeown explained.

As for Donohoe, he is convinced that the future of the postal industry is still bright.

"When television came out, everyone thought the radio would disappear. Many people said that the death of the postal industry was the internet. All these new services and tools add variety to what you can do but they never replace what's been there in the past."

swissinfo, Faryal Mirza

In brief

The UPU was an organisation born out of necessity in 1874, when chaos was still the norm for postal delivery. A maze of bilateral agreements governed mail traffic, hindering circulation.

"The world then was very different; bilateral agreements between countries were very fragile because each side decided if there was an interest for them or not," the UPU's Director General Edouard Dayan told swissinfo.

Various multilateral attempts were made to simplify the status quo. Switzerland was also involved and in September 1874 the government organised an international conference in Bern to discuss the establishment of a worldwide postal union.

A month later the Treaty of Bern was signed setting up the General Postal Union, the UPU's predecessor. This date is now celebrated as World Post Day. The rapid increase in members meant that the organisation was renamed the UPU in 1878.

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Key facts

There are more than 660,000 post offices around the world, employing five million people.
Postal services deliver globally around 436 billion letter-post items, both domestically and internationally, and six billion parcels annually.
The Universal Postal Union has 191 member countries.
It claims to be the second oldest international agency after the Geneva-based International Telecommunication Union.

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