“Tourism needs more supportive public policies”

Taleb Rifai

Tourism creates jobs, provides employment to the poor, and with the right policy measures in place, helps protect the environment, says Taleb Rifai in this exclusive interview with Global. Countries around the world need to develop and strengthen their tourism policies, reduce visa constraints on the movement of people, and by so doing, create a tourism industry that can help lift them, and other sectors of their economy, out of the financial gloom.

Global: Do you think tourism may be able to contribute in any significant way to mitigating the employment and confidence crises facing some of the more troubled eurozone economies, especially Greece and Spain?

Taleb Rifai: Without a doubt. Despite an economically turbulent 2011, Europe was the strongest growing tourism region last year.

Southern European destinations performed particularly well, benefiting somewhat, but not only, from the shift of travel away from the Middle East and North Africa. In many of the countries of southern Europe facing the challenges of public deficits and mounting unemployment, tourism, a major export sector, is pro­viding much welcome support, contributing to the balance of pay­ments and creating jobs. Moreover, many destinations in Europe have managed to maintain this positive performance in 2012.

We should not forget that tourism is one of the world’s most labour-intensive sectors, employing one out of every 12 people worldwide, especially young people. Tourism also has a large mul­tiplier effect: for every one job created in tourism, 1.5 jobs are cre­ated in related sectors such as agriculture or transportation.

The emerging economies of China, India and Brazil would appear to be becoming leading players in travel and tourism – both as hosts to more tourists and in sending large numbers of their own tourists to other countries. Are these countries about to take prime position in the future evolution of the tourism industry?

China, India and Brazil, as well as Russia, have emerged as impor­tant tourism markets, both as hosts to inbound tourists and sources of outbound tourists. China, for example, has seen its expenditure on international tourism increase fourfold since 2000, positioning it as the third biggest spender on international tourism in the world to­day. India and Brazil are seeing equally impressive growth. In 2011 alone, Brazil’s expenditure on travelling abroad grew by 30 percent.

Do you think tourism operators could do with a stronger show of support from their home governments in resolving some of the trickier policy challenges?

Despite tourism’s vital contribution to the economic and social well-being of developing and developed countries worldwide, the sector still receives surprisingly little recognition from many national governments.

This matters because tourism needs the right policy framework in order for its full potential to be reached and this has to come from government. Tourism is a sector impacted by, and with impacts on, numerous other economic activities. When policies are made with­out taking tourism into account – on planning, transport or taxes, for example – the sector often suffers unnecessarily.

At the same time, many of the challenges facing the tourism sec­tor can only be tackled with government support. Climate change, for example, is an area in which government leadership would cer­tainly encourage private investment in green tourism. The tourism sector also looks to government to put the necessary regulations in place in terms of standards and certification.

This is a long process, but we are happy to see governments in­creasingly acknowledging tourism’s potential. At its last meeting in Mexico, and for the very first time, the G20 singled out tourism as a sector that can contribute to current economic challenges. So we are on the right track.

Are visa restrictions and increased security measures tending to become more onerous over time or do you see the prospect of improvements that could lead to generally freer and more relaxed movement of people across the world?

The forces of globalisation have made international travel more ac­cessible to millions, as reflected in the estimated one billion interna­tional tourists in 2012. Among the main drivers of this growth have been rising incomes, a growing middle class and a liberalisation of many restrictions to travel.

Nevertheless, millions more still face avoidable barriers. Re­search by UNWTO and the World Travel & Tourism Council (WTTC) shows that unnecessarily complicated, lengthy and over­priced entry formalities, particularly visas, are creating barriers for many tourists, especially from rapidly growing economies. The same research shows that improving these visa processes could boost the number of tourists to G20 countries by an additional 122 million, generating an extra $206 billion in tourism exports and creating over 5 million additional jobs by 2015.

Progress is certainly being made in this area. In 2011 in the USA, a destination where such barriers have been a clear obstacle to tour­ism growth over recent years, President Obama signed an execu­tive order to increase tourism, boost the economy and create jobs, all by easing the visa process. Many other countries are taking ad­vantage of already available technologies to advance in areas such as e-visas. Yet much remains to be done and visa facilitation is a top priority for UNWTO.

What would you say are the most important policy measures that poor countries can enact to promote UNWTO’s vision of sustain­ability and the elimination of poverty?

UNWTO has developed seven ‘mechanisms’ that, when carried out, can help ensure tourism benefits the most vulnerable. These include the need to 1) increase the level of people in poverty working in tour­ism; 2) ensure that goods and services in the tourism supply chain come from local sources; 3) encourage visitors to buy produce and services directly from local communities; 4) support the establish­ment of small, micro or community-based tourism enterprises; 5) redistribute tourism revenues earned by national or local government to reduce poverty; 6) encourage tourists to give back to the areas they visit; and 7) ensure that new tourism infrastructure – roads, water, energy, etc. – also brings positive benefits to the poor.

These mechanisms are integrated into all of UNWTO’s on-the-ground tourism initiatives. To date, over 100 projects in 34 coun­tries have been carried out, ranging from building a canopy walk­way through the forests of Laos to developing birdwatching tours in Cameroon. Some of our most successful projects have been those that simply link up the local economy with the international tourism market, such as in Nicaragua where over 50 local produc­ers now supply fruit and vegetables to hotels in the Managua re­gion, or in Honduras, where over 300 people have gained employ­ment through linking local businesses to hotels.

Do you expect the co-hosting by Zambia and Zimbabwe of UNWTO’s General Assembly next year will give impetus to those two countries in revitalising their tourism industries?

The 2013 General Assembly will be our chance to send out the mes­sage that Africa has long been ‘tourism ready’ and that the sector is a huge opportunity for job and income creation across the continent.

Africa has been a true tourism success story and currently re­ceives around 50 million international tourists a year, generating $33 billion in receipts. At UNWTO, we expect international tourist arrivals to Africa to more than double over the next 20 years, reach­ing 134 million in 2030, significantly increasing the continent’s share of the global tourism market.

What can be done to ensure that tourism is regarded more often as a solution to humanity’s ongoing political, economic, social and envi­ronmental challenges rather than as yet another source of problems?

While one billion international tourists are expected to travel in 2012, surprisingly few of these will be aware of their role as a tour­ist in creating jobs, driving economic growth and advancing devel­opment. Fewer still will be aware that many of the natural areas they visit have been protected precisely because of the economic incentive provided by tourism.

The tourism sector needs to continue to spread this message, but can only do so if it speaks with one voice, a veritable challenge considering the many different stakeholders that make up the tour­ism community. At UNWTO, we are working tirelessly to bring all tourism stakeholders together to change the current perception of tourism. Only once people are made aware of tourism’s economic, social and environmental value will the sector be afforded the sup­port it needs to realise its full potential.

What areas of focus and further initiatives can be expected in the coming years from UNWTO?

While competitiveness and sustainability remain at the heart of UNWTO’s agenda and programme of work, there are within these a number of more immediate priorities going forward. As I have mentioned, travel facilitation is a key issue and an area of particular relevance as countries look to grow their tourism sector. Unbal­anced taxation, particularly on air travel, is also a major concern.

The political recognition of tourism’s potential continues to be a challenge. In this respect, UNWTO will continue, together with WTTC, to present heads of state and government around the world with an Open Letter on the impact of tourism, advocating for greater support for the sector. So far, 38 heads of state and government have received the Open Letter, and in all cases it has been a unique occa­sion to draw their attention to the economic and social value of the tourism sector and the need for more supportive public policies.

About the author:

Talib Rifai is Secretary-General of the World Tourism Organization (UNWTO)


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