Never in the history of the UN World Tourism Organization (UNWTO) and, perhaps, in the history of the global travel and tourism industry, has there ever been an event where both public and private travel and tourism stakeholders, lecturers, experts, as well as industry and mainstream media have held a conference to discuss the industry’s most pressing issues of the day. In a nutshell, this is exactly what the first-ever UNWTO Global Tourism Forum achieved on March 7 to 8, 2011, in Andorra de Ville, Andorra.
The general attitude towards the two-day event has been positive. VisitBritain Chairman Christopher Rodrigues said: “I was quite encouraged, because I think, strangely, the pressure of the recession has caused people, as it often does, to collaborate more, and instead of everyone being terribly wealthy and having lots of money, and all doing their own thing, and not wanting to talk to each other. It’s evident that tourism, particularly leisure tourism, has been very resilient. It’s evident there’s a big opportunity, because it creates jobs, and that’s what the world needs.”
The VisitBritain Chairman praised UNWTO’s leader, Mr. Taleb Rifai. “I think what we saw there under Taleb Rifai’s leadership is a real sense that the industry… I mean the industry’s been around for 50 or 60 years – it’s been around a lot longer since Thomas Cook started it in 1841, but the industry is getting to another level of its sophistication. And I think it’s beginning to realize that to really promote and to defend its position, because there are some who don’t like growth in tourism, it needs to hold hands and work in a collaborative sense, and I think there was a real sense that that phase of our development has begun and that we’re committed to it.”
Mr. Rifai himself during his speech at the event’s closing ceremony best summed up the achievements of the first-ever Global Tourism Forum. The UNWTO Secretary-General said: “We have discussed two very important issues – competitiveness and responsibility, otherwise called sustainability. We’d rather call it responsibility, because this is our responsibility vis-à-vis our mankind and our environment in the world we live in.”
Regarding “competitiveness,” Mr. Rifai said he felt that the conference touched “all relevant issues.” These, according to the high-ranking tourism official, include how to build new models, and how to live up to the rapid changes. “There was “no better way of closing the forum than to hear Jeffrey Sachs, one of the leading economists of the world and a wonderful reference, particularly when it comes to us in the UN system on how he sees the world, and he did not paint a very, very promising or bright picture. We need to live up to these challenges. We discussed issues of innovation, technology, infrastructure, human resources, and many of us had the chance to see the presentation of the World Competitive Report, of the World Economic Forum in tourism and the heated discussion, and the very useful discussion, that surrounded that.”
One of the key issues of the inaugural Global Tourism Forum was about responsibility or what Mr. Rifai described as “otherwise called sustainability.” He said: “We had people representing so many sectors – the airline industry, the travel and tour operators, the cultural assets, the hotels, and the likes. And we did discuss the social and economic responsibility that comes with tourism. There were clearly no radical positions, but rather a very, very balanced and responsible debate that displayed all points of view. People and profits went together, people and planet went together, and planet and profits went together.”
It is the UNWTO leader’s view that the conference “definitely came to some very clear conclusions, that in drafting the balance sheets, so to speak, and we heard voices calling for the balance sheets.” Mr. Rifai said: “We definitely need to come up with an equation that does not have to sacrifice one thing for the favor of the other. We cannot see the relationship between tourism and sustainability as zero-sum gain. If one loses, the other wins. It must be seen as a win-win situation.”
In addition, the UNWTO secretary-general noted that the more healthy tourism growth, the better the preservation efforts should be, and the better the preservation efforts are, the better the health of the industry is, whether they are natural assets or cultural assets. “We should never see them as one taking out of the other, and I think we should avoid using the term balance – the travel complementing one another and creating a win-win situation.”
In Mr. Rifai’s view, we are living in a world faced with two great crises that hit us at the same time – the financial crisis and the ecological crisis. He said: “I believe they both stem from the same and one root – our responsibility and our ability to use our resources in a good and well-planned manner. We did not use our financial resources well; we abused them, we lived beyond our financial means, we had to pay the price economically. We did not use our environmental and natural and ecological means in a responsible way; we abused them, we misused them, we are faced with climate change. They are both the result of the same mentality of approaching our life and our assets. It must be one solution, one approach, a win-win where human beings come on top.”
Mr. Rifai and Andorra’s Economy Minister, Pere Lopes, both confirmed that Andorra will also host next year’s edition of the Global Tourism Forum.