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Taleb Rifai, Secretary General of the United Nations World Tourism Organization

Interview - October 14, 2011
Secretary General of the United Nations World Tourism Organization discusses the positive impact tourism has had on the global economy, as well as the progress and challenges faced by Mexico in its efforts to become an international tourist hub.
Over the past several decades tourism has become a widespread activity in which almost one billion people engage every year. Globalization and the opening of borders have led to the development of many emerging countries as popular tourist destinations, and have of course made traditional tourist hubs even more accessible for tourists from different continents. Tourism receipts have doubled over the past decade to reach over $900 billion dollars in 2010, while new branches such as ecotourism and rural tourism have led to the sustainable development of local communities around the world. Could you please evaluate the role of tourism in social and economic progress nowadays?

Thank you so much, I am delighted to be here with you. You are correct in your analysis and description of tourism as a central global phenomenon now at the beginning of the 21st century. It has become a human activity that has surpassed the expectations of any analysts and social economists’ predictions. In the year 2010 alone, we had 940 billion people crossing international borders. We are expecting a growth of 4%- 5% this year, which would bring us close to one billion people crossing borders at the end of 2011.

If we add to that the number of domestic or local trips, which we estimate to be four-and-a-half to five times that. In 2010 in China alone, 2.1 billion domestic trips were registered in one year. You can imagine the explosive human activity of people who are visiting everywhere. Today no place goes unvisited. Every spot in the world is open for visitation and tourism. People have started to move around the world in spite of many, many challenges such as border crossings, visas, both manmade and natural crises, security issues. But still people are defying all of that a moving all over the world.

While they do that, they are generating so much activity and energy. $920 billion USD was generated in tourism receipts in 2010 alone. We are fast approaching the amount of $1 trillion dollars, only from travel and tourism, and excluding the means of transportation, meaning airlines, trains, or ships. We are talking strictly about money generated from traveling, from the moment you enter that point to the moment you leave that point. In doing that, there is a great amount of money being generated and billions of dollars are left as income to the people of that country. Millions of jobs are being created. One out of every 12 jobs in the world is created by the travel and tourism industry. 30% of service sector exports come from tourism. You can just imagine the big impact travel and tourism have both economically and socially.

Together with that of course come a lot of other responsibilities towards the society, culture and the environment. But that is another realm where our organization is very careful. The UNWTO creates more and more travel, while more and more increasing awareness about the responsibilities that are necessary.

How would you say that trends and innovations in tourism, such as e-visas and low cost airlines, are changing the experience for international travelers?

The last decade has seen tremendous changes. One of the most important changes has been technology. Today one of every three trips around the world is done directly between the service provider and the consumer via internet, and that percentage is expected to grow even more. The mode of operation is completely changing. Today you can look into promotional material via your mobile phone or the web, download maps, hotel lists, attractions, make a booking and payment, go there, come back, write your opinions and evaluations, and share them with millions of others, all from the privacy and convenience of your home. This never would have been possible before.

We are now developing a new line of knowledge which is called electronic tourism or e-tourism. We are conducting a large number of workshops in capacity building. Technology is also leveling the field, making the small operators, small players, and small destinations as competitive as the larger ones. Social media and the advancement of technology are so democratic in that every voice can say what they want to say, and every voice is equal to each other. It gives a very good advantage to the small players in tourism.

This brings me to the second very important trend. In addition to technology in the last 10 years we have seen the rise of the emerging destinations in the developing world. At the beginning of this century, 36% of world tourism was going to the developing world. The bulk of tourism, both inbound and outbound was still going to the mature destinations in the developed world. Now in just 10 years it is almost 50-50. The net gains in proportional terms of this increase both in numbers and in flows were the emerging new destinations. Actually in 2010, it was the emerging destinations that led the recovery efforts. Brazil, China, India, Malaysia, South Africa, Chile, and Argentina were the ones that actually tipped the balance. The world average in growth in 2010 was 7%, which is a very high average. But Asia grew at a rate of 14%, double the global rate. The mature destinations, such as Europe and North America, developed at half that rate at 3%- 4%. 

The third very important trend is the growing consciousness and awareness of not only how much people travel but how they travel. There is a growing awareness of wanting to be a responsible citizen while traveling, which will become more and more part of the future business model. Being environmentally, culturally and socially responsible and developing policies of corporate social responsibility (CSR) amongst all stakeholders, is not only doing the right thing but doing the right business. People are now more and more selective, and want to associate themselves with stakeholders that are conscious and responsible.

Talking about the patterns of international travel in the past decade, which are the main countries of origin for today’s international tourists?

It is still Europe. Europe still generates most of the outbound tourism in the world at more than 55%- 60%. I think Germany is still number one, sending about 78 million tourists. The U.S.A. is also another leader with 75 million travelers leaving the country every year. China is now rising, having become the third player both in outbound and inbound tourists. We believe that China will very quickly, before 2020, become number one in the world. Today China is sending 55- 56 million people abroad. The U.K. and France are also important markets. It is still the societies that have disposable income and a large middle class.

But I also must add to this list some very important players who are coming into the scene very quickly. Russia grew at an average of 27% last year in outbound markets, and the average expenditure per Russian tourist is by far higher than the average European traveler. Brazil was the number one performer in outbound tourism having grown 52%. Of course the numbers are still not big but it is a reflection of the important growth of its middle class. In that regard we are observing the same phenomenon in Mexico. The numbers are not very big, but the growth is high because the economy is improving at a good pace, and the middle class is growing. When the middle class grows, more people want to travel because traveling becomes part of your daily culture and habits. It is a need, not just a luxury. Every family must take a little break somewhere, somehow.

Could you please discuss the UNWTO’s activities in more detail, and your responsibilities as Secretary General?

The UNWTO came about eight years ago in 2003 when it became a specialized agency of the United Nations. That means that like all other specialized UN agencies, it is mandated to promote and sustain the economic sector it is mandated in, which in our case is travel and tourism. The UN Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) is mandated with culture and education, the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) is mandated with agriculture, the World Health Organization (WHO) is mandated with health, and we are mandated with travel and tourism. We are the international body that is mandated to promote sustainable tourism and the watchdogs of healthy growth.

Before 2003 there was an intergovernmental organization called the World Tourism Organization (WTO), which in turn came out of a European organization, so we are almost 70 years old. We have been in Madrid since 1975 and have been an intergovernmental organization for the last 36 years. Only eight years ago as an acknowledgement of the importance of this sector, the General Assembly (GA) of the UN decided that we should be the organization mandated for travel and tourism.

We do two things. One is that we make sure more people travel to more places. The growth of travel, the more people move around, the more we are happy. When traveling around you generate income, which creates jobs and infrastructure, and promotes trade, peace, and understanding. There is nothing better than people visiting people to breakdown negative stereotypes. You can never have feelings of animosity to people that you visited. People traveling are a good thing. The more people travel, the better this world becomes.

Our second responsibility is how to travel. Traveling must reflect on a better environmental awareness. Building new tourism infrastructure must enhance and enrich the environment, and improve it, not destroy it. While people travel, we must contribute to the sustainability of this planet. We must also contribute to the sustainability of the cultures, and uniqueness of these cultures, because otherwise we destroy the very same assets that we are using. When you travel to places like Mexico, you want to eat Mexican food, interact with Mexican people, experience Mexican culture, and live the Mexican experience. You are compelled to preserve this culture, so that can feed back and create an even more unique experience. There is a very healthy interrelationship between preservation and tourism. You can never destroy the assets that you are using to promote your business. Our asset is a healthy environment, a healthy culture, and a very sustainable source of income. These are the principles that we try to promote and encourage all of our members and all of the countries around the world to observe.

Focusing now on Mexico, the country has become one of the most popular destinations for international tourists. Mexican authorities have made great strides at promoting the country through international conferences and marketing campaigns such as “Viva Mexico”. On the other hand Mexico’s National Trust Fund for Tourism Development (FONATUR) has also been instrumental in stimulating tourism and attracting private investment. President Calderon’s administration declared 2011 as “the year of tourism in Mexico”, and has set the ambitious goal of increasing both the number of international arrivals in Mexico and foreign receipts from tourism, so as to place Mexico in the top five most important tourist destinations in the world by 2018. Could you please share your thoughts on Mexico’s tourism potential?

We are thrilled with what is going on in Mexico with regards to the seriousness and importance they are placing on the travel and tourism sector. I had the pleasure and the honor of being with President Calderon and Secretary of Tourism Gloria Guevara at the inauguration of 2011 as the year of tourism earlier this year. The very presence of a President of a Republic together with 250 ministers, governors, and parliamentarians on the stage behind him, in front of thousands in the audience, while the President declares that tourism is one of the most important items on his national agenda was a very powerful message. You cannot see that message in many other countries around the world. There is a sense of seriousness of how President Calderon is approaching this industry sector, which is quite unique and gives us a very special satisfaction and delight.

In addition to declaring 2011 the year of tourism, President Calderon made every concerned minister and governor sign a national agreement, which is basically a pact that commits every public official to do his or her best to ensure that rules, regulations, and policies are supportive of sustainable travel and tourism. That is a powerful statement.

The second thing that happened is that we presented him with an international open letter that has since been presented to a large number of presidents and heads of states of different countries, but he was the first to receive it. This open letter commits Mexico to promote world tourism. We are going to publish these letters and their recipients in what we will call a ‘Golden Book’ sometime in the course of 2012. I have just returned from China where the Deputy Premier of China signed it, and the President of Indonesia, the President of South Africa, the Prime Minister of Japan, before that. The President of Korea will be signing it next week, in addition to Spain and Hungary. We now have a long list of countries that want to sign this ‘Golden Book’. Today Mexico is among the top ten destinations, with 22- 23 million visitors in 2010. There is a commitment to put Mexico in the top five which is a very ambitious target.

Especially when I think 19 million of those visitors come from the U.S.

Yes, but that is natural. I think the real challenge is going to be not how to move from tenth to fifth, which is very admirable in principle. But the real challenge is going to be, who are the first five? You are going to have to surpass countries and destinations which are very, very powerful, like France, China, the U.S. and Spain. In order to become the fifth, you are going to have to knock one of these countries into sixth, which is going to be very challenging.

But what is more important about this declaration is the will behind it. To me, it is more important to establish a goal and work hard to try and achieve that goal, than the end results. What really matters at the end is ‘how hard have you tried?’, and I think they are trying very hard in spite of many, many challenges and difficulties. That is why we are very supportive.

Speaking about challenges, it is more to mention that the current administration has had to face some very significant ones such as swine flu in 2009. Now there is the increased violence caused by the war on drug cartels. Do you believe these challenges will obstruct the efforts to achieve the goal we have spoken about?

I happened to be in Mexico in 2010 on the second day of the H1N1 outbreak. I was in Acapulco and there was Tianguis, a very, very big tourism fair. The fair went on, although some adjustments were of course made since it was necessary to take the right precautions, but I witnessed how brave the Mexican people were in facing this challenge. They took some of the toughest measures ever and did the right thing. They were very honest and transparent with the people. They said exactly what was going on and continued with their lives, but they took all of the difficult measures. If schools or roads needed to be closed, those schools and roads were closed. Within a very, very short period of time, they managed to contain it. I said this at the time and I would like to repeat it now – that the Mexican people fought this battle on behalf of the rest of the world. And they won that battle and won it quickly.

Mexico was faced with that very great challenge. Before China was faced with the avian flu, and before that there were other outbreaks. These are things that can happen, but it is how you deal with them, what experience you take out of them, and how the world sees you after that. I think what Mexico did was admired by the rest of the world. That is why the effects were not long lasting. Of course there were very serious repercussions, but we do not talk about that anymore. Now we talk about other challenges. The world does not forget, but they remember how you dealt with the crisis. Crises can happen anywhere in the world, but people continue to go to places if they trust that these countries can act in case anything happens. I think Mexico was able to prove that.

On the other security issues, I also think that Mexico is doing the right thing by being very honest, direct, and saying what needs to be said. Today the world is full of conflict spots. But travelers go to places where they can trust the authorities and the countries. Today you cannot guarantee safety anywhere in the world. Safety and security are no longer an element where you say, ‘If I cannot guarantee, I do not go.” People are going to many areas where they know there are potential problems. It is part of the risk that you take in traveling anyhow. Travel is not without risk just like life is not without risk. We should not be too fixated on the issue of security, if not it is a no-go. We should concentrate on how a society deals with its security issues. Today there are places around the world that people never thought would be a security risk.

While I acknowledge, and I think our Mexican friends know very well, that manmade crises, like security issues or conflicts, and natural crises, like pandemics, tsunamis, hurricanes, and earthquakes, are deterrents, it is how you deal with them that becomes the most important part. 

Latin American countries and Mexico are a natural destination for North American tourists, but how could Mexico attract more tourists from Europe and Asia?

Let’s first establish the fact that it is natural that you attract more tourists from your neighborhood. This is not something held against any destination, on the contrary. If destinations bypass their immediate surroundings and only depend on faraway medium and long haul, then something is not right. I am not too worried about Mexico being so dependent on neighboring destinations.

But having said that, what is not very healthy is to be overly dependent on one particular destination or just immediate destinations. You have to diversify both your destinations and your products. The world is becoming so small now in the sense that travel is no longer a very challenging thing. Traveling, whether for 2 hours, 4 hours, 8 hours or even 12 hours, is no longer a factor. What is a factor is how competitive that is – How much will it cost me? What would I get out of it? And how satisfied will I be when I leave? 

Especially now with the increasing affluence of South America, such as Brazil, Argentina, Chile, and Colombia, they are becoming world travelers. They travel to Europe, China, and the U.S. Mexico has the opportunity to balance North American traffic with South American traffic. That is number one. Step number two is of course the neighbors to the east and to the west, Europe and Asia. These are the natural markets. In Europe of course the traditional markets, such as Germany, the U.K., France and more importantly Spain because of obvious linkages, are very legitimate targets. I also would not exclude Asia, in particular the Chinese, Korean and Japanese market. Through my various visits to Mexico, I am aware of how conscious they are of these issues.

But I want to remind you of my initial point – not at the expense of the immediate markets. You cannot compromise already established links for the sake of new links. You must build on the established links and enrich them.

The Mexican Tourism Board recently launched a website that contains news and messages about the country, while President Calderon held a much publicized meeting with U2 member and global humanitarian Bono. Are such measure effective ways of counteracting the negative press Mexico has been receiving lately?

Absolutely. I think President Calderon, Secretary Guevara, and all of the tourism officials from the different states are doing the right thing. The only proven way to counter negative images is to forget about being defensive about negative stories, and concentrate on transmitting the positive stories. In the face of every negative story that may come out of Mexico, there are 1,000 positive stories the country can transmit. But it needs to transmit them. That is what the President, the new website, and Mexico’s entire tourism infrastructure is doing. 

I was also in Mexico while there was a television program called “The Royal Tour” that a friend of mine, Peter Greenburg, was doing with President Calderon. This is also done with other heads of state, taking them two or three days throughout the country and making the head of state acting as tour guide. These human stories make public officials and political leaders’ people that we can connect with, and are the most powerful stories that can be transmitted. Stories about a young girl who has graduated and just found a job in a medium-sized hotel in a medium-sized city in Mexico, and has been able to earn some money to feed her family, educate herself, and enhance her life and those of the people around her, these stories have to come out. That is the best way of making the country look good.

We hope to profile these positive stories in our project.

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