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As a record 1.1 billion international travelers crossed borders in 2014, the global tourism landscape is shifting to newer frontiers of Asia, Africa and Latin America while the tourism strongholds of Europe and the U.S. continue their ascent in visitor arrivals.
Exports from international tourism rose to $1.5 trillion in 2014 and show no sign of falling back. The worldwide travel and tourism gross domestic product is growing faster than the overall global GDP and both domestic and international visitor spending are projected to soar during the next decade.
Taleb Rifai, secretary-general of the United Nations World Tourism Organization (UNWTO), recently sat down with Skift to talk about the biggest challenges facing global tourism in 2015 and how destinations can work to create solutions to these challenges and opportunities.
An edited version of the interview follows:
Skift: How has the UNWTO changed during the past decade in terms of its role on the world stage and with helping destination marketing organizations? Also, where do you see it going during the next decade?
Taleb Rifai: The changes in UNWTO stem from two main lines. One is the changing nature of the industry itself which may set to be in tune with that. Secondly, the redirection of our priorities as a result of that and as a result of past experiences as well, not necessarily only due to the changes. I would sum this up in three points.
One point is we had to focus on two major priorities which became very clear to us.
One of those points is how do we increase the competitiveness and the ability of destinations to attract more tourism and generate more benefits from the tourism industry, as a result of the incredibly unprecedented growth that this sector, this human activity is experiencing, whether it’s through marketing, whether it’s through infrastructure development, whether it’s product development and all the elements that have to do with increasing competitiveness. That also includes travel facilitation, air connectivity and other kinds of connectivities. The is one basket.
The second basket that we’ve identified for ourselves is the sustainability concerns, because you can’t just concentrate on raising competitiveness and looking only at the growth of this industry which is happening with and without us. It’s how was this growth managed, how was it directed, and how was it really impacting people and the planet and such.
The core of our mandate as a UN-specialized agency is to promote sustainable tourism, but you can’t promote sustainability if you don’t promote tourism, so that’s why we said competition and growth on one hand and sustainability on the other.
We stand for a belief that the growth of this industry on one hand and the preservation, protection, responsibility and sustainability on the other hand are not a zero-sum game. We believe that we can continue to grow, we have to embrace growth and never be afraid of it. We have to equip our members, particularly governments and destinations, with whatever would enable them to grow in a healthy way but to do that in a sustainable way.
Skift: I don’t think you would find many destinations that don’t want to be sustainable, that don’t want to preserve their artwork, their national treasures, anything that’s beautiful and dear to them. But a lot of destinations probably don’t know how to do that in the most efficient way. What is your advice to best carry out this sustainable tourism, how to go about it?
Rifai: You’re correct in assuming that no destination would declare that it is not interested in preservation. Cultural and natural heritage are the natural capitals of tourism. You don’t consume your capital. It’s a very simple logic in that regard.
Destinations don’t always conform to the same values. Some destinations are not capable of practicing growth they’ve reached, and some destinations don’t know how to do it. It’s a mixture of know-how but also political will in that regard. We also shouldn’t assume that everybody has bought into this.
Yes, in principle, nobody would want to associate themselves with practices that are not sustainable, but do they really have the will and determination to make strong commitments?
Skift: What are some examples of how you promote sustainable tourism to destinations?
Rifai: We have developed something very important called the sustainability criteria in UNWTO. We’ve been working with these for years now. There are many ways of doing this and engaging with us on particular projects.
There are general principles and criteria, but each case has to be seen on its own so you have to be aware and be informed. You also have to be flexible enough to say, “Okay, in this particular case, what do I do and how does this criteria apply?” We have been asked many, many times to do things like this.
Another area of which we are very active in now is the promotion of our global code of ethics in tourism. That is a code that was approved by the UN General Assembly in New York in 2001. It’s a roadmap for good and ethical tourism practices. When we say this, we don’t only mean how to respect the environment. We also mean how to respect societies, economies, fair distribution of benefits, respect to the local culture, respect to social norms, respect to the environment, etc.
This document has been endorsed by all the governments of the world, but we’ve been embarking since 2011 now on a campaign to enlist the private sector. We’ve reached about 300 private companies and associations all over the world from 46 countries who have signed themselves onto this and committed to the global code of ethics.
Because at the end of the day, they are the practicing parties. What they commit themselves to is, first, to observe the code amongst their people. Secondly, to promote it amongst the circles of business partners that they deal with, and thirdly, to report to UNWTO’s global committee on tourism ethics once every three years.
This is also part of our way of making sure people are practicing what they’ve preached.
Skift: You said that the tourism code of ethics was first approved in 2001 which is 14 years ago at this point. Has it evolved in any way since then?
Rifai: Yes, absolutely. On the government side, we have a total legal way of saying, “You have approved this code, where are you on that?” In that regard, it is translated into rules, regulations, and bylaws within the countries that incorporate elements of these codes.
In national laws and bylaws, you’d have to include things that guarantee the protection of honorable groups, such as children and women, and guarantees of better and fair distribution, respect to the local culture and local habits and environmental protections for the 160 countries that are members with us.
With the private sector, on the other hand, it’s more of a moral commitment. We don’t have any legal binding with them, no mechanism to hold them to. When they do decide to sign onto the code, they do it in public, in front of cameras and usually either the minister, or prime minister or president of their country would be witnessing their signature.
Skift: I’m thinking about the context in which the code was created and signed in 2001, i.e. the 9/11 attacks. Did the attacks influence the writing of the code?
Rifai: Maybe. I can’t say for sure because I wasn’t involved with UNWTO when that happened. The General Assembly of UNWTO itself actually approved the code in 1999 and it went into effect in 2001. I’m not sure it’s connected but, of course, it gained particular relevance because the protection of people and the safety of people is an integral part of this 10-chapters document.
Its a very important document that I have to personally submit a report about every year to the General Assembly in September in New York about where we stand on this and what is our assessment to the adherence to the code of ethics.
Skift: On a related vain, I’m interested in getting your take on the visa waiver processes throughout the world. Recently, we have examples of Egypt now requiring everybody to get a visa before they arrive. Then you have Australia and Indonesia not reciprocating visas with each other. And then you have the U.S. going in the opposite direction and increasing the number of visa-waiver countries.
Rifai: You can’t really attract visitors to a destination if they can’t get permission to go there.
At UNWTO we have the largest database on visas in the world with every country’s regulations, rules, application forms, strengths and weaknesses are available in our database. Our studies have proven now that 63% of people in the world still need a priority-stamped visa to enter a country.
Now, that’s not good because that’s almost two-thirds of the world requiring a visa to move from their countries to other destinations that are inviting them. The good news is that in 2008 this percentage was 77%, which means that our efforts and the awareness of these destinations have some results.
Of course we’re always considering security. You don’t want people to travel to places where their security is not guaranteed, not only to visitors but even to the people who live there. You can create a system that is secure and comfortable but also friendly at the same time and easy to go through. We are under-utilizing our technological means to do that and we could have a more robust online visa application process. Why not?
Why do we insist people continue going through bureaucratic procedures to get their visas at a time when people say, “You don’t want to give me a visa? I’ll go to another place that would receive me without a visa.”
With the example of Egypt, tourism there is a bloodline, it’s a lifeline. With regard to the U.S., we’re very encouraged by what’s happening there because it sets the example for the rest of the world.
The U.S. recognizes the connection between visas, income, jobs and development. Every 43 new tourist visas to the U.S. creates one job. It’s as simple as that. When you think about it like this, you can’t just say leave it to a bureaucratic city to say yes or no. Of course their job is to say yes or no, but also to understand what’s behind the decision. President Obama even publicly said this.
Skift: That’s an excellent point. What do you think of the technology rolling out at airports related to visas such as automated passport control, mobile passport control in the U.S. and elsewhere? Do you think these technologies will be enduring?
Rifai: We hope that the airports and governments will do more with these technologies. For example, in Australia you don’t have any stamped fees on your passport anymore. You apply for the visa online, you get your answer online and you get a code.
Visas can and should go in that direction. Nowadays, passenger loads of any aircraft are checked and all the information is inputted before the passenger boards a plane. All this information is received by the destination where an aircraft is going even before the aircraft lands. Technology has allowed us now to compile data, analyze data, compare data and help people not suffer from these scrutinies. What we need to do is isolate unwanted persons, not nationalities per se.
Skift: Changing course, Cuba is on Americans’ radars now more than it’s been in the last 50 years. With the U.S. poised to reestablish elations with Cuba, American tourism to the country is expected to grow. But tourists from Europe and Latin America have been going to Cuba for years, so tourism itself isn’t new to the island. What are some of the challenges Cuba will face with this large market now being able to travel there?
Rifai: Definitely tourism is not new to Cuba. Actually, Cuba was one of the most successful examples of how to attract tourists to an island that has been put to endure many, many challenges yet tourism was one of probably the few sectors that allowed it to keep providing the people with the means of generating income and creating jobs.
The entire west Caribbean will become more and more visited because in that very small and contained part of the world, visitors tend to experience or exercise what we call multi-destination itineraries.
I’d like to make clear that Cuba won’t be the only market to benefit from Americans’ arrival there. The Mexican ports, Haiti and many, many of the west Caribbean destinations will also benefit. This is a win-win situation for everybody.
Skift: Cuba represents other destinations that are all of a sudden new and exciting to Americans. What kind of impact will this have on the Caribbean as a whole?
Rifai: We’re going to see an increased level of integration, regional integration between these destinations which would benefit not only Cuba but other destinations that need boosting, because some people may tell you, “Now the tourist will start going to Cuba and not come to our destinations.” That is absolutely a false assumption.
Skift: What is the single biggest challenge facing global tourism today, and where do you see the most opportunity?
Rifai: The biggest challenge in the competitiveness basket is still visa facilitation and ease of travel. I hope that we can reconcile the two elements of security and facilitation in the spirit of one thing not being held against the other.
Another challenge in the long-term is sustainability and making sure that the 1.1 billion international travelers every year and growing still make the right impact on the places where they travel to.