If you want to understand what's happening right now in global tourism, the first person you should listen to is the UNWTO's Taleb Rifai.
If you work in travel it’s common to face a bit of burnout when it comes to talking and thinking about tourism on a local, global, or any other stage.
But once you get beyond all the issues of globalization or overdevelopment — and we’re not afraid to address them — it’s an amazing industry that trades in promise, relaxation, and joy in ways that few other fields can come close to.
Travel remains one of the few things that just eveeryone wants to do.
Over the summer Skift went to Madrid, which sits at the center of a tourism shift in Europe away from Italy and France and towards the Iberian peninsula and cities including Berlin and other emerging destinations. During this time we met with hotel and tourism executives, as well as tech leaders and others who could speak to the changing nature of the business. It also happens to be the home of the United Nations World Tourism Organization.
So, naturally, we went to talk again to Taleb Rifai, Secretary-General of the World Tourism Organization. We spoke to Secretary-General Rifai for the first time at the World Travel and Tourism Council’s annual gathering in 2015. He was frank then, as he was this summer.
Rifai is the rare person who is able to mix pragmatism with inspiration. His office has marks of his native Jordan while he manages to discuss issues that go far beyond traditional political borders. At the same time he quickly pulls you into a discussion of tourism and its benefits as if it is the last saving grace of civilization.
Below is an edited version of that conversation.
Skift: I don’t think there are many people as well positioned to think about the future of tourism as yourself. I wanted to get a sense from you, and I think this is an excellent time to be talking about it, especially considering global unrest and issues that have been happening for the last couple months.
Rifai: Let me make more than a point. Point number one is, tourism and travel together has proven to be such a resilient industry that nothing is going to stop it. This has become a fact. It may be halted in certain destinations for a short period of time. But if these destinations are well established in the tradition of receiving people and have the right infrastructure and the right expertise then in the immediate and long term it comes back even stronger than it was. This has been our experience in many, many destinations all over the world.
There is no stopping to this movement of people. I believe travel has become a human right. People are not going to stop traveling. They may alter their plans, they may postpone them a bit here and there, but the phenomena of traveling at the international level is going to continue to grow.
Only last year, we had a 4.5% growth, which means an additional 15 million over the year 2014, to make the total number 1.2 billion international travelers crossing boarders every year. It’s tremendous. Just think about it. The year 1950 after the second World War, there were only 22 million international travels. From 22 million we moved to 1.18 billion. There is no industry in the world, there is not human activity in the world that has grown so exponentially as travel. It’s become part of our way of life, part of our culture.
The second point is to go back to what’s happening today. Many people think that what’s happening today is rather new, but the dynamics are new. The global aspect of it is not. It’s always been like this. The difference is we get to know about it more than before. The world has never been better than what it is today. Only thing is that we know about problems that are happening more than before.
We know about them at the tip of our fingers. If girls are kidnapped in Nigeria, they’re our girls. If a tsunami happens in Japan, it’s affecting us.
This has never been the case before. Twenty, 30 years before, it was not the case, let alone 100 years or something like this. The world is coming together and the world is caring more about each other, therefore I can confidently say it’s a better world in spite of all what we’re seeing.
What we’re seeing however is a unique phenomena. It’s a global phenomena. No destination under the sun is immune from being affected or attacked. If not by a man-made terrorist or security related matter, then by a natural disaster. No place in the world is immune from this. I can challenge anybody to name me any place that tells me it’s impossible to have it. No place can claim to be 100% safe and secure. This is a fact. There’s never been anyhow.
Does that mean that we stop traveling, we stop living as human beings, stop celebrating beauty of life and the enjoyment that travel brings and the benefits that travel brings through it? We should never, ever do this.
There are more than one reason why I’m very optimistic about the future. One is as I said, people are going to continue to travel no matter what. Secondly is, there’s a political reason for this. It’s very important for us never, ever to allow these forces of darkness to win the battle. That’s exactly what they want us to do. They want us to stop traveling. They want us to build walls, they want us to close borders, want to isolate us from each other and they want us to hate each other. That’s why they’re targeting tourism.
What are they targeting? They’re targeting airports, hotels, beaches, places where people gather. They know it’s an industry that represents connection between people, that represents the future, that represents celebrating life. That’s precisely why it’s targeted, and that’s exactly why we should never, ever allow them to win this battle.
I think we should immediately travel to a destination that is subjected to any attack. The last attack that happened in the Istanbul airport, at the Ataturk airport, there were two very important things that happened there. It’s really significant, I don’t think people took enough time to look at them carefully. One, the airport was open in eight hours. Eight hours, less than 24 hours. Not only opened, but full of people and full of activities, which is an answer to these terrorist that come in: you’re not going to cripple our economy. We’re not going to panic.
The second very significant development that happened is that the very same day, Russia decided to lift its ban of traveling to Turkey. We were accustomed to having countries impose bans when an attack happened. The Russians decided the right and correct way to say, “Now it’s time to say no. We will travel more to Turkey.” Of course, that’s independent of what happened to Turkey recently, now that’s a different story all together. As an answer to these terrorists, this is the right and the correct way and the best way that we will ever respond to this.
In a nutshell, I’m not worried about the travel and tourism industry. I’m concerned about the lives of people and security of people, of course. We need to be concerned about security of travel. We have to put it at the heart of our objective. Security doesn’t mean we don’t travel. Do not travel or reduced travel is not an answer, it’s not an option.
It’s not just a Western phenomena, as you’ve already dictated, it’s a global thing. It happens in Turkey, it happens in Egypt, it happens in France, it happens in America, anywhere around the world with tourists, anywhere. Thailand, Arabia, Bangladesh, they’re all subjected to that. It can happen anywhere. Iceland.
Skift: In terms of recovery, you mentioned Nice. It won’t be a month, it’ll be a week. Other destinations, you can even think of the difference between Brussels and Paris and bouncing back, Paris bounced back really quickly Brussels takes a little longer. In situations like Tunisia or Egypt where that bounce is not happening as quickly, and Egypt has some ongoing issues of course. What’s the ..
Rifai: …. Key for that?
Skift: Exactly. What’s the key for that?
Rifai: Look. When I say bouncing back, I’m not saying it’s automatic and it happens by itself. It has to be a conscious deliberative attempt to do this.
The most important part is not just the reconstructive infrastructure or to reconstruct the physical ability to receive people, it’s the winning of the communication game, if I may say so. You need to know how to speak to media, you need to know how to present yourself, you need to know what to say, how to gain the confidence of people. At the end of the day, you travel to places where you feel you’re confident and you’re feeling the truth. You’re confident that you will be given the best opportunity of being taken care of. There is no destination in the world that can guarantee you 100% security. This is hypothetical and this is theoretical.
What you need to go, you go to places where you are confident that the system will provide you with the best possible opportunities of enjoying your time. Even under normal circumstances, you could be mugged in the streets of any big city around the world. There’s no guarantee to anything like this, but you still go to these big cities.
If you try to conceal, if you try to hide, if you try to revert to the old fashioned way of saying, “We’re the best, don’t worry,” that doesn’t work. It doesn’t work. What you need to do is come across somebody that knows exactly what’s going on, come across as a destination that’s honest, that’s credible, knows exactly what the risks are, and doing its best to provide security. If you come across such, the recovery will be must faster than any other person could ever imagine.
Skift: Let’s switch to maybe happier things or more exciting. When you think about emerging markets, what are the ones that you’re most excited about and why?
Rifai: Markets should be divided into two parts, the inbound and the outbound.
Skift: Let’s talk inbound first.
Rifai: Inbound markets: the trends are clear. It’s the developing, the new emerging destinations that are on the rise. All destinations around the world are growing, including the established destinations of Europe, North America, Europe in particular. Today, 52-55% of world travelers come to Europe or come out of Europe. Europe is the hub. The numbers are still growing. Europe received more than 30 million in addition to its existing last year.
Out of the 50 million new travelers, 30 million were gained by Europe. It’s still a very, very formidable and strong market and it will continue to grow. To assume that Europe can establish destinations of the developed world, it can still maintain the same market share in 10, 15, 20 years, that’s not realistic. Emerging destinations are gaining market shares, but everybody’s growing at the same time. Today, we have around almost 50/50. 10 years ago, it was 60% in favor of the mature destinations. The developing destinations attracted only 40%. Today, it’s 50/50 and we expect by the year 2030 to have that become 60/40 in favor of the developing destinations.
By the developing destinations, I mean the new openings in the world, of Asia, of South Asia, of Africa, of South America, all the developing countries with new products that they’re presenting. They are the more exciting and people are looking for a difference. They’re looking for new experiences. Of course they will always want to feel good about going to well known, established traditional destinations. The growth is going to be more, I would say. Everybody’s growing, but the growth is going to be more in the developing destinations.
That’s all the inbounds. The outbound, it is clear now that China has established itself as number one destination in the world, the last five, six years. It was Germany until six years ago. Not only has it established itself as the first outbound destination, it’s by far outpaced — 130 million Chinese traveled in 2015. Growth was more than 30% over the year before.
Just think about it. In the year 2000, China only sent 10 million international tourists. From 10 million to 130 million.
Skift: In 16 years.
Rifai: That’s still the tip of the iceberg. In 16 years. More than 13 times as much.
The important thing is not just in numbers. The important thing is the ability, these tourists, these travelers, to have an economic impact that’s even higher than others. Now look. 130 million are spending $290 billion. That means there’s more than $2,000 per traveler per trip spent every year. That’s almost 80% higher than the world average public expenditure per tourist.
Chinese, when they go visit somewhere, they spend their money, their friend’s money, their neighbor’s money, and their creditor’s money. They go shopping, they buy things, they take back. It’s incredible, their impact on the economy is incredible.
Skift: What do you think happens as that market begins to mature? If the Chinese outbound market now is similar to the U.S. outbound market after World War II, with people on buses seeing things for the first time as opposed to 20, 30, 40 years later when people are visiting secondary markets, tertiary markets, and have a greater familiarity with travel and tourism?
Rifai: I think Chinese market’s already mature, to be honest. I think the difference between the two examples that you just wrote in is that they’re similar in many ways, yes, in their trends, but the difference is the difference in time. We’re talking 60 years ahead. Today, the world’s opened up in ways that was not opened in 1950s and 1960s when the Americans started to travel. When the Americans started to travel, they traveled to the most available, convenient and easy destinations, particularly Europe. If maybe some of them are adventurous, they’d go to India, maybe.
Chinese today have a different availability. The trend is the same, but the situation is far much more global. I was in the island of the Maldives four years ago. I did not see a single Chinese traveler. When I asked them about it, they told me, “Chinese don’t like the sun. We have no shopping and we don’t think that we’re in a market that’s attractive to the Chinese.” I went there last year, 72% of the visitors to the Maldives are from China. Why is that?
Skift: Because they like the sun?
Rifai: No. They like the prestige of it. They like the connection of it. What I saw were sons and daughters of well-off Chinese citizens that are going there for honeymoons or weddings or something like that. They don’t have to sit under the sun, they just want to be there and enjoy what’s there. There is a direct airline connection.
The places where the Chinese can go are now unlimited. They are going to it. You’d be surprised. I was in Sri Lanka, I came in last night from Sri Lanka. It’s amazing, the number of Chinese there. They’re not just going to Paris and Rome and and London. They’re going to all of these secondary destinations, from the quarters to what you were describing. Therefore they have become a mature market.
I may add something else with regard to the Chinese. There is a wrong perception, a wrong assumption, that you need to cater for the Chinese visitors in a special way in terms of food, in terms of habits. That is absolutely unsubstantiated. The only thing you need to cater for probably is the language, like in any other group of people. They need to have Chinese speaking guides, they need to have literature in Chinese, probably menus if possible. Whatever you can do to improve the communication would help. To assume that Chinese people want to go to Sri Lanka or to the Maldives to eat Chinese food or to have the Chinese tea or to eat at 12 instead of two, that’s wrong. They go there because they want to see something different, because they want to try something different.
My very humble advice to all these destinations is, do not go out of their way to become more Chinese than the Chinese themselves. Just receive them as they are. The only effort that needs to be done is to make sure that you can improve communication. Otherwise, they want to go there to see something different, not to emulate their own culture and and such, like any other visitor around the world.
Skift: Talking about the emerging inbound markets that you’re excited about, I imagine some of them, there has to be some arguing taking place saying, “This is why this is good, this is why you need to work on establishing better air routes and help development of tourism product or hotels,” or things like that. What are some of the more effective means that you’ve seen for positive tourism planning?
Rifai: I can’t go into details of what every destination needs and does not need or should be appropriate. Every destination’s different from the other as to what it needs to do to become an even more competitive and more attractive tourism destination. The one thing that has proven to be and nothing can start without it, is the political will. The belief of the country that is willing to welcome and receive visitors, that tourism as an economic activity is of a national interest and it’s given importance and precedence.
Without that, nothing is going to happen. This is not just a private sector responsibility. You need to have the belief, the political will, the understanding, the appreciation of this industry, to be able to make something.
Everything else, according to what I am saying, is a detail. Building roads, training people, remoting, is a consequence of believing that you need to go in that direction. We have seen examples of countries that don’t have much but has made a lot of success doing this. Countries that have a lot in terms of potentials, but are not moving an inch.
Why? Because it’s never what you have, it’s what you do with what you have that matters.
Skift: Political will isn’t always about logic and saying, “Let’s look at the attacks as it happened, nobody came on a tourist Visa.” That doesn’t always click with people. What’s the way forward and the efforts that need to be taken by the tourism industry to reinforce that message?
Rifai: Raise awareness. Our data, our research at this time at UNWTO is centered on this. Most of our research is based on these issues of showing and illustrating how much countries are losing in a terrorist attack. Do you know that every 43 new tourist visas today in the United States creates a new job? It’s simple as that. How many people know this? How many people make this connection?
It’s not just an issue of economics, it’s how much are we losing. I want to put this on record, actually: President Obama is one of the few presidents that is very conscious about this. Two years ago he gave an executive order to increase tourist visas by 17%. He made a very simple statement, he says, the more folks that visit the United States, more people who put at work. Simple as that.
You tell me that’s going to jeopardize my security? Prove it to me. Let’s take them one by one. I had a visit from the minister of tourism of Greece a few weeks ago. Do you know what she told me? 92% of our illegal immigrants, if you want to call them illegal immigrants, come in without a visa. Am I going to punish the whole country for the 8% of the people that came by visa and stayed behind?
If you go to a department store and you start wanting to search everybody on the way in and on the way out, nobody’s going to go there. What department stores do is a very logical thing. They say, “We’re expecting 4-5% of shoplifting, we live with that.” I don’t think that countries are thinking in a logical way when they talk about visas.
The problem with visas also, some of the countries are so stuck with this old concept of reciprocity, foreigners who says, “I’m not going to give visas to Argentinians because Argentinians are not giving us visas.” My answer to that is very simple. This is based on the concept of an eye for an eye. And eye for an eye is going to end up making the world blind at the end of the day. It doesn’t work.
At the end of the day, what’s more important, is it your own benefit or that? I don’t believe the concept of reciprocity should apply to when it comes to pure economic gains.
Photo credit: Taleb Rifai, Secretary-General of the World Tourism Organization, in his office in Madrid, Spain. Rut Gomez Sobrino / UNWTO