Dr. Taleb Rifai, Secretary General of the United Nations World Tourism Organization (UNWTO), was keynote speaker at the IE International Relations Club Speakers Series last Monday. He spoke about the role of tourism and the UNWTO in today’s globalized and constantly changing world.
Dr. Rifai started his intervention with a challenging idea: in spite of the turbulent days the world is going through, today’s world is better than in the past. Today’s solidarity is based on a common aspiration for peace, democracy and freedom. It is true that there are challenges, and we have to know how to tackle them. But there are examples showing how people get involved in problems that are far away from their societies. The terrible kidnapping of the girls in Nigeria originated #BringBackOurGirls, a movement created by people’s concerns about the girls. The same happened with the tsunami in Japan and the typhoon in the Philippines.
Connection between tourism, travel and the UN’s principles
Dr. Taleb Rifai’s speech was an example of the Institutional Liberalism, using the particular example of UNWTO and the UN in general.
We celebrate in 2015 the 70th UN’s birthday: an international system inclusive of everybody as never happened before. The system is still imperfect, but it gives us a hope for the future.
UN’s principles are:
- Social progress or development
- Human dignity and rights
Traveling and tourism are catalysts for these values and work as tools for democracy. They make a positive impact on the world, today more than ever, because we live in the “age of travel”.
The figures are there for everyone to check out: in 2012, there were 1 billion people traveling outside their country’s borders; in 2014 the figure had risen to 1.1 billion. And this growth, which has been of 5% approximately the latest years, is continuous even though the world is going through deep crisis, terrorist threats, etc.
The two revolutions
As it happened before with the Industrial Revolution, today’s world is going through two revolutions:
- The Information Technology (IT) revolution, implying movement of information. We live in a hyper connected world, reflected in our permanent connection to our mobile phone. This small device is a powerful democratic tool; today more than ever the power belongs to everyone and is changing of our societies: messages instead of face to face conversations, emoticons, new social media every day, and regimes are up and down because of it.
- The Traveling revolution, embodied in movement of people: 1.1 billion of international tourists traveling across borders and 6 billion inside their countries’ borders. In 1950s, this figure was only 25 million international travelers and 75% of the people in the world never left the area they were from. Today, traveling is part of our culture and way of life.
Impact and influence of tourism as economic activity
We are coming out one of the worst crisis in History and international economic bodies acknowledge that we are at a mediocre recovery stage (as recently stated by Christine Lagarde), however total export earnings generated by international tourism in 2013 reached US$ 1.4 trillion, according to the UNWTO, tourism represents the 9% of the world’s GDP and 1 out of 11 jobs in the world is related to tourism. It is a sector which is continuously adapting and adjusting, being flexible and creative, following the IT influence.
Shape of new tourism economy
How does this sharing of culture affect the world? There is a new landscape, a new paradigm going beyond figures. Tourism is about people, upgrading people’s lives and taking them out of poverty. But with growth comes responsibility; there can be 1.1 billion of opportunities to improve the world or 1.1 billion disasters: environmental, labor-related, etc. This is the reason why the UNWTO promotes sustainable tourism, respecting the environment, different values and cultures, etc.
“We live in a globalized world” means that we are all similar and have similar dreams and aspirations. But globalization has also brought out the uniqueness of every culture, we are now also more aware of our differences. Becoming aware of being so alike and of the beauty of our differences and diversity is key to have a better world.
Is continuous growth positive, or does it has a limit?
Traveling has become a right, a part of our culture as human beings, that’s why it will continue to grow. We do not have to be afraid of continuous growth and embrace it, because more revenues make people’s lives better, as long as we make it sustainable: the key is sustainability.
Impact of low oil price
Today traveling is cheaper, but low prices affect countries like Russia, whose economy is very vulnerable to oil prices. Tourism from Russia has been growing at a 25% rate approximately in the past 5 years. Now the nation is struggling, which will bring less Russian tourists to other countries. However, things will be balanced at a global level towards growth.
Informal economy and industry in tourism
There are two sides of the question. The positive side of it is the engagement with the community, money goes directly to the people and the interaction tourist-community is better. However, there is currently very little regulation guaranteeing safety, security and other standards. Also, this is unfair to local business which are collaborating to develop the community. Fair trade requires a certain level of regulation to guarantee it is safe and fair to everyone, which is not the case now.
Tourism and democratization
Many of the global values will be in people’s hearts in the future through tourism. Traveling brings people together and empower them. It also helps people to know more about each other, making individuals more tolerant.
It is a growing trend and its impact depends on the purpose of the service. If young people engage with the community, their work will help it to grow. It is positive that young people (below 29 years old), who are around 28% of the 1.1 billion international tourists, engage with communities.
It is key for our future; that is why the UNWTO is working on 500 indicators which help us to have a positive impact on people, with vision, consciousness and awareness.
How to balance globalization and authenticity
We live side by side, share global dreams, aspirations, values, rights … and at the same time respecting differences and diversity. Tourism is able to put both together, working together for a bright future.
People should change their perspective on tourism and ask themselves about the impact their trip will have: jobs created, how the money circulates, people affected, etc. Hiring locals, meeting them, going to local restaurants… are recommended practices to make a difference with our trip.
I finish with a quotation mentioned by Dr. Taleb Rifai:
“I have watched the cultures of all lands blow around my house and other winds have blown the seeds of peace, for travel is the language of peace.”