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China has initiated the formation of a new world tourism organization. The UNWTO, WTTC and PATA are exceedingly polite about it, but there are undercurrents of uneasiness about how much influence the new China-led World Tourism Alliance can wield.

Editor’s Note: Skift launched a series, Gateway, as we broaden our news coverage geographically with first-hand, original stories from correspondents embedded in cities around the world.

We started with regular reports several times per month from tourism hubs Beijing, Singapore and Capetown. Gateway Beijing and Gateway Singapore, for example, signify that the reporters are writing from those cities although their coverage of the business of travel will meander to other locales in their regions. Read about the series here, and check out all the stories in the series here.

In a potential game-changer, China is flexing its tourism muscle as it launched a new global tourism organization that could challenge the incumbents.

Global travel and tourism has a new watchdog based in Beijing with 89 founding members – national tourism organizations, influential tourism companies, think tanks, international organizations, research institutes, it says — and more than 60 per cent them are based outside of China. Members hail from the U.S., France, Germany, Australia, South Africa, Japan, and Brazil.

If the new World Tourism Alliance weren’t led by China — the world’s largest outbound travel market — many would dismiss its challenge to the UN World Tourism Organization and the World Travel & Tourism Council. But from its onset, the World Tourism Alliance has a fraternity that would take these established tourism bodies years to build.

The entry of the World Tourism Alliance could shake things up, said a source who is familiar with China but agreed to be interviewed only on the condition of anonymity. “China is peddling soft power, recognizing that as the world’s leading outbound market, the time has come to show influence.”

The World Tourism Alliance debuted in Chengdu, China right under the nose of UNWTO during its 22nd General Assembly in the city. That the alliance is important to China and came right from top leadership is evident. China’s Premier Li Keqiang sent a congratulatory message for its inauguration, according to the China National Tourism Administration. 

The Makings of a New World Tourism Body

It’s not clear when the planning for the World Tourism Alliance began, but China National Tourism Administration chairman Li Jinzao led the organizing committee to create the new organization.

The World Tourism Alliance will have a general assembly, which acts as “the supreme authority,” and a board of directors and a secretariat with a secretary-general and subordinates, all based in Beijing. The working languages are Chinese, English, French, Russian, Arabic and Spanish.

It has elected its first chairman, Duan Qiang, who is the president of Beijing Tourism Group and also the World Travel & Tourism Council’s vice chair for China.

The World Tourism Alliance sees itself as a “global, comprehensive, non-governmental, not-for-profit international tourism organization.”

China Daily cited Duan as saying that the World Tourism Alliance was a natural outcome from a country that’s becoming increasingly influential in the development of the world tourism industry.

Tourism now accounts for more than 10 per cent of China’s economy and employment. In the next five years, Chinese tourists will make 700 million outbound trips, said China’s President Xi Jinping in a lletter to the UNWTO general assembly. China pays great attention to the development of the tourism industry, he said.

Inbound-wise, China is fourth in international arrivals after Spain, the U.S. and France, with 59.3 million visitors in 2016, according to UNWTO provisional figures.

Do we need another watchdog?

The UNWTO and WTTC have a chummy relationship and have formed a coalition that includes the Airports Council International, Cruise Lines International Association, International Air Transport Association, International Civil Aviation Organization, Pacific Asia Travel Association, and the World Economic Forum. That’s a fairly comprehensive, global configuration that has proven it can speak with “one voice” on tourism issues.

“Although, the World Tourism Alliance says it is non-governmental, it is strongly supported by the government,” said the source. “It is led by the Beijing Tourism Group which, although now privatized, has its origins as a state-owned enterprise, and once a state-owned enterprise, forever a state-owned enterprise. There isn’t any other global association that can boast such government support.”

How will this impact the incumbents?

“The big question is how this will impact the UNWTO, WTTC and PATA. UNWTO is government; WTTC is a club for the private sector bigwigs. PATA, which is a hybrid, may be more impacted. It should initiate a dialogue to explore how it could collaborate with WTA before it gets too powerful.”

The source said the World Tourism Alliance will have advantages over its rivals in that it will  be influenced by the Chinese government, and national tourism organizations won’t be in a position to ignore it given China’s influence on global tourism.

“Secondly, China will commit resources, financial or otherwise to WTA, and no other association can match that. WTA does not need to be commercially driven, whereas the others all have to. In challenging trading conditions, some organizations may not have the luxury of engaging say both PATA and WTA and will be forced to choose.”

A Warm Embrace?

UNWTO and WTTC have so far not openly addressed whether World Tourism Alliance is needed, and both hav embracing it with open arms.

WTTC president Gloria Guevara said in an email interview: “WTTC welcomes this new initiative from China, which highlights the Chinese government’s commitment to growing travel & tourism. WTA, different in its constitution from either UNWTO or WTTC as both organizations are global in their mandate and represent governments and the private sector respectively. It will be a welcome addition to pushing for greater recognition of travel and tourism.

“WTA aims to bring together stakeholders from across government, private sector and academia to share best practices and research within China and the region, and WTTC looks forward to working with Mr. Duan Qiang, chair of WTA and WTTC vice chair for China. Together we will enhance our focus on maximizing sustainable growth of the tourism sector in China and Asia.”

Taleb Rifai, UNWTO’s outgoing secretary-general, said: “We consider that it will contribute to advance cooperation in our sector, which is a key to make it ever more sustainable and competitive. Any form of cooperation can only be for the benefit of our sector.

“We trust that the same way there is a strong coordination among UNWTO, WTTC and PATA the same will apply to World Tourism Alliance which will reinforce our capacity to speak on the benefits of our sector.”

PATA’s CEO Mario Hardy said he’s aware of WTA, adding, “The future will tell us what role they will play on the global tourism scene.”

The One Belt and One Road Initiative

The birth of World Tourism Alliance also fits in with China’s One Belt, One Road Initiative, which aims to connect 65 countries across three continents – Asia, Africa and Europe – to China through Europe-Asia continental roads, and sea routes through the South China Sea and Indian Ocean. Travel and tourism figures heavily in this initiative, and massive investment is needed on infrastructure development.

China also initiated the creation of the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank in October 2013 to further the initiative.

When Asia Infrastructure Investment Bank emerged, like the World Tourism Alliance, it drew nervous reactions that it might usurp the role of the World Bank, the Asian Development Bank, or the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development. That didn’t  — or hasn’t — happened.

World Tourism Alliance says the alliance and UNWTO are “two wheels driving global tourism exchange and cooperation at the governmental and non-governmental levels.”

Time will tell.


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Tags: china, gateway, tourism, wttc

Photo credit: A celebration to mark China National Day on October 1, 2017. China has launched a new tourism group, the World Tourism Alliance. Visit China

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