Report Card: Taleb Rifai on being the UNWTO secretary general

ETN: You’ve been in office for almost two years, how is it going?
UNITED NATIONS WORLD TOURISM ORGANIZATION SECRETARY GENERAL TALEB RIFAI: I think well. We’re overloaded as an organization. We have limited capacities. We have raised the bar on expectations a bit too high, but we are doing that gladly. It’s been rewarding and very difficult, especially the last year. But, a lot has been achieved.

ETN: What have been your major achievements thus far?
RIFAI: I think the positioning. The visibility first and the positioning of UNWTO has gained tremendous momentum. The tourism community in general is seeing UNWTO more and more as the umbrella that’s going to embrace all initiatives. I think we’ve been able to position the organizations vis-a-vis the major issues without being shy about them, even controversial. We’ve improved our connections with our Member States. They feel more sense of ownership and relationship to the organization that they’ve created anyhow. The most important achievement is that we are reaching out to all stakeholders of this organization. I am very proud of our relationship with the World Travel & Tourism Council.

ETN: You have clearly paved the way for a closer relationship with the World Travel & Tourism Council; how is the alliance coming along?
RIFAI: It is coming perfectly. It will not limit itself with us and WTTC. We have committed, David Scowsill [WTTC president and CEO] and I, to be inclusive of everybody.

ETN: That is an excellent synergy to be witnessing.
RIFAI: Definitely. We are trying to build a network of coalition where we all do different bits and in our different circles that we operate in. We are all partners in a common pool of objectives, and we’re determined to bring this together.

ETN: Since you took office, what challenges have you encountered and how have you turned them into opportunities?
RIFAI: The most important challenge was the fragmentation of the players in this sector. It was very, very clear that there was a sense that everyone wanted to put on their own show. And I was determined from the very beginning to turn this into an opportunity for the industry. I think it is beginning to work, because we have to give each player in the industry to do their bit. But in doing that, we have to make sure it is done in a coherent way and that it maintains cordial, civil, and even move it to conducive and coordinate kind of way.

ETN: Professor Jeffrey Sachs of the Earth Institute at Columbia University has issued a challenge for the travel and tourism industry to urge governments to get more serious on food, energy, and climate change. What to make of this challenge?
RIFAI: I think we have invited Prof. Jeffrey Sachs, because he is taking the right position vis-a-vis the challenges and development in the future. He is absolutely on target, especially with energy and food. These are challenges that are connected to sustainability and our industry, in particular, is very much connected to that, because our industry is a consumer of energy and a producer of other forms of energy. Food, of course, is an integral part of our hospitality industry, and we cannot see our industry flourish and provide the necessary services if these two issues are not resolved on a national level and for everybody. We can’t be thinking of the needs of tourists without first satisfying the needs of the local population in each and every destination.

ETN: Do you agree with his assessment that the world is lacking a so-called leader, and that the United States is on a reactive mode instead if being on leader more?
RIFAI: There is a leadership issue that is beginning to manifest itself.
Independent of the US or any other country in that regard, the world is definitely in a vacuum of leadership. There is a leadership issue, a leadership challenge in the world that is clearly beginning to manifest in the last 10 years. Whether this rests solely on the responsibility of the United States or the entire global political system, the world is looking for leadership. The international system represented in the UN is struggling to try and fill that vacuum, but the current structure within systems that are the reflection of how the UN system was set up 60 years ago is limiting the UN to act as a de facto provider for vision and leadership for the future.

ETN: What do you think can be done meet this challenge?
RIFAI: I think we have to strengthen the international system. The world is entering a phase where world power, so to speak, or a megacountry leading the world is becoming less and less accepted by the people of the world. Every country deserves a voice, a place under the sun, and it deserves a say in world affairs. Climate change is not something that you could limit by any border, the economic challenges were cross-border; many, many challenges of the day – energy and food – are not at all issues that could be handled by any particular country or even by a particular region. The only way out is to strengthen and restructure the international system to provide leadership. And that would require rethinking of how the United Nations, in particular, as the current representation of the current international will, should be reformed to enable it to act as such.

ETN: There seems to be a paradox going on with all the revolutions in say Egypt and Tunisia, and yet there is no so-called leader. How do you respond to this phenomenon?
RIFAI: It is very clear that people are taking matters into their own hands, and that is a very clear reflection of the disenchantment of the people, vis-a-vis their own political systems and structure. Whether it is a developed or a developing country, people are disenchanted and the lack and inability of the international system to fill that vacuum.

ETN: What can you tell us about UNWTO’s efforts towards responsible tourism?
RIFAI: In the many issues of sustainability, there are many players in the filed. The United Nations is making sure that it works together, compliment each other’s efforts so that we don’t waste energy on duplicating each other. So we are part of a series of initiatives with UNEP in their “sustainable tourism partnership” program. We also finished authoring the first tourism chapter in the green economy report that came out of the United Nations. The first sector that is in the [report] is the tourism sector. It outlines our role, our obligations, and our obligations [regarding responsible tourism].

ETN: UNWTO’s task force on the sexual exploitation of children in tourism used to meet twice a year. I understand that the task force now only meets once a year. Why the change, and are you satisfied with the progress of the task force?
RIFAI: Every meeting means resources committed – money and expenses. Nowadays, much is done through videoconferencing and direct connections, so we’re trying to use our facilities the best possible way. But I am not into the details of how and why as long as the work is being done. Whether it is two, three, or ten meetings, it is the outcome that counts. We are on track and I am pleased with the efforts.