Taleb Rifai, Secretary General, United Nations’ World Tourism OrganisationSudipto Roy March-April 2017 Interview
In an exclusive interview with Taleb Rifai, the Secretary-General of the United Nations’ World Tourism Organisation (UNWTO), India & You brings out the most crucial aspects of India’s reflection on the world tourism map and how the country remains a key focus area for this global tourism body.
As a reaction to the terror and refugee crisis, many countries have resorted to tighter controls and visa regimes. Has this impacted tourism? Does the UNWTO have a role to play in ensuring that tourism continues to thrive and countries don’t become fortresses?
Indeed, it is very unfortunate that we are witnessing a growing sense of isolationism around the world and that may impact the tourism sector. UNWTO has been long advocating and making evidence-based demonstrations that travel facilitation can yield important benefits for countries in terms of job creation and economic growth. Research has proved that visa facilitation in the G20 countries could create over five million jobs within three years.
Closing borders will not help us fight such a global challenges as terrorism. The best response to terror is increasing the support to countries suffering from these dark actions. Continue visiting those nations and help them improve security if needed instead of isolating them. However, it is important to recall that tourism is a highly resilient sector that has demonstrated to recover quite well from crises of different type. The impact of crises on tourism is normally of short-term nature. Furthermore, thanks to tourism, countries can recover faster from crises.
A different topic is the refugee crisis: a dramatic situation represented by people escaping their nations in order to survive. Nevertheless, these two phenomena have a common link: the need to enhance international cooperation among countries in order to find strategies to manage them.
Having said this, we believe in the power of tourism to shorten distances among individuals and among countries that may face differences and even confrontations. By travelling, we become more human, we enhance our understanding of other faiths, cultures and traditions. Building walls will lead us nowhere.
International tourist arrival is up 4 pc in the first half of 2016 – what are the most important measures required for tourism bodies to achieve a sustainable growth?
It is not a coincidence that we are celebrating the International Year of Sustainable Tourism for Development just months after the approval of the Sustainable Development Goals and the Agenda 2030. Sustainable tourism practices are not only the responsibility of public authorities and governments but a commitment for all of us, including travellers. Actions such as protecting heritage and promoting local products and traditions have immense repercussions to reinforce sustainable tourism. As we normally say 1,235 million tourists can have a devastating effect if they do not think how to support ‘sustainable travel’. Sustainable tourism requires a commitment from all – governments at national and local level, private sector, civil society and tourists – to create infrastructure and business models that respect nature, mitigate resources consumption, protect heritage and respect local communities.
How do you see India’s performance as a tourism destination? Why does the country continue to draw so few tourists and has the UNWTO been helping India in attracting more tourists?
India has been a consolidated destination for many years and one that has seen immense growth in the last decade with international tourist arrivals growing from 4.5 million in 2006 to 8.9 million last year. Today, the combination of modernity with the rich and ancient traditions is of unique and remarkable nature. I trust that with these immense resources, very high international visibility – who does not remember the ‘Incredible India’ slogan – and an increased commitment to tourism from national government, we will see this number rise. We should also add that India has a very important domestic market which should not be neglected.
How do you see potential of heritage tourism as an industry? What share of the global tourism industry does it have and is the UNWTO helping countries and companies gain knowhow in this domain?
Tangible and intangible heritage lead the motivation of travellers when they choose a destination. In fact, because of tourism, many communities have revitalised their forgotten traditions in order to keep their authenticity and to become key destinations. More and more travellers want to know more about the outer world and its richness; this is an unstoppable phenomenon. At UNWTO, we believe that the tourism community is quite aware of this trend and efforts are being conducted along that path. In this respect, UNWTO has several projects to promote heritage such as our Silk Road Programme, ongoing research on tourism and culture, a series of annual events with UNESCO and many other activities.
How is the UNWTO placed with strategies that safeguard virgin destinations and make them accessible to the world for exploration without disrupting the sanctity of the native culture?
Sustainable tourism is the only path to guarantee that future generations will continue to enjoy the jewels of this planet. Exchanges with local communities and respect to their traditions and identities are at the core of this concept. Therefore, tourism should serve as a catalyst to revitalise and to protect native cultures.
In terms of eco-tourism, how would you promote the use of green-powergeneration in countries like India?
The conciliation of the human being with the nature is in the philosophy and in the history of India. World renowned practices like meditation or the Ayurveda are just examples of that culture. The development of the tourism sector in India has to adjust to that principle in order to enhance and to capitalise all its potential.
How do you see the disruption of the tourism industry caused by the digital revolution and smartphone applications? Has it been a positive influence on tourism or has it shaken the foundation of tourism industry as it was known till about a decade ago?
The technological revolution has impacted all us by facilitating the exchange of information and of knowledge, by making us more aware about the challenges of this planet and by helping us develop a specific sensitivity on global concerns, among others. In all these aspects, tourism has acted as a catalyst to create a more committed and responsible sector and to achieve better societies. In 2030, we envision 1,800 million international tourist arrivals, a number representing 20 pc of the planet, so we expect that all players – governments, private sector and civil society – will increase their level of responsibility and engagement to let future generations enjoy the beauty of this world and the immense benefits of tourism.