At most corporate conferences, hours blur into days, sessions merge, and speakers all end up sounding identical. You can be anywhere in the world — Africa, Asia, Europe — it doesn’t matter, the conference center renders all cultures the same.
It takes something out of the ordinary to really make an impression. At the World Travel and Tourism Council’s Global Summit in Seville, Spain, that came almost at the very end of the two-day event. Fittingly the speaker was sandwiched between the tech boosterism of Hyperloop and Uber in a segment dubbed “Vision of the Future.”
It took a while for Chandran Nair, founder and CEO of the Global Institute for Tomorrow, to find his rhythm. He wasn’t as slick and polished as others, and there was no glossy corporate presentation. But slowly, carefully, and methodically he started to make his points.
Nair first managed to politely disagree with something former President Barack Obama — the previous day’s star turn — had said when they both spoke at another conference eight years ago, before going on to list a series of challenges facing the world.
We shouldn’t think of the 21st century as the Asian century, as many have dubbed it, he argued. It would be “catastrophic” if those countries attempted to copy the American and European lifestyle. Instead the world would need to redefine “what prosperity looked like.”
“You don’t have to be a rocket scientist to know that there’s just not enough around the planet to go around,” he said.
Calling It Like It Is
In effect, Nair was calling out the inherent contradictions rooted in the travel and tourism industry.
How will we all cope with the growing population fluctuations, climate change, and technological overreach — and most appropriately for the high-ranking delegates — what about the structural problems of modern capitalism?
“Much of what has been discussed in the last few days about sustainability, I think, seemed to sort of gloss over the fact that we have an economic model that’s essentially at war with the planet,” he said.
This economic model is one based on “promoting relentless consumption,” something from which governments, airlines, cruise companies, tour operators, and online travel agencies all benefit.
There’s a tendency in most industries to assume that people can manage problems, whether that’s inequality or climate change. Identify, then find the solution — but don’t change the status quo. After all, everyone needs to keep making money.
Follow the Consumer’s Lead
So, travel and tourism, according to the WTTC, supports one in 10 jobs worldwide and generates 10.4 percent of world GDP. For presidents, prime ministers, and CEOs this is great news, and there were plenty of people onstage celebrating the benefits of global tourism. The industry has the ability to do good.
Keith Barr, IHG CEO, spoke about how consumers were leading the sustainability debate, and the former President of Mexico Felipe Calderón gave an admirable speech on climate change.
The WTTC also announced the creation of a “taskforce to help prevent and combat human trafficking” with founder members, including Airbnb, Expedia Group, and Thomas Cook. It’s a nice thought, but what can these companies really do to eradicate something that has so many different causes? Wouldn’t they be better off putting their efforts into changing things in their own companies and industries?
Nair’s speech managed to puncture the atmosphere of benevolent do-goodery. But when are travel and tourism companies and governments going to confront the outsize impact on climate change in a meaningful way? When all was said and done, it’s hard to tell how many people were really listening.