UNWTO head Taleb Rifai: Let’s go to Mexico!


Taleb Rifai, the ad interim secretary general of the United Nations World Tourism (UNWTO), said he is spearheading a movement to bring tourism leaders to Mexico to demonstrate that there should be no travel restrictions as a result of the current swine flu threat and to commend the Mexican government’s handling of the crisis.

Rifai, who has been selected by the organization’s executive council to become the next secretary general after a contentious battle for the post, made this remark to eTN in an exclusive interview at the recently concluded World Travel & Tourism Council’s Ninth Global Travel & Tourism Summit, which was held in Florianopolis, Santa Catarina (in Brazil).

RIfai said: “We are aware that now is the time to come up with public stands and statements. We are ready to do even more than that when listening to the WTTC debate. Everybody was asking us to be a little bit more open now. The last 2-3 weeks required a different strategy because we did not know much. We know more now and will know more tomorrow about this virus. Now is the time to come up with clear and more proactive statements.”

Releasing joint statements is not all that the incoming UNWTO secretary general is doing (granted he is ratified by the UNWTO general assembly, of course); he wants to mobilize specific actions. He said: “I want to do even more. I will propose this to our friends at WTTC and others: We [have] got to go to Mexico. We’re going to make a statement out of Mexico.”

Asked if he is at all concerned that Mexico will be perceived as being singled out in the swine flu threat, Rifai said: “Well, because if you do that from Mexico, you will be serving everybody else as well. This will say we are not shying away from any place in the world, and Mexico needs a particular recognition in this. They fought a brave battle; let’s make this very clear. They fought on behalf of all of us. And they did it right. They absolutely did it right. So, they must not [be left] to pay the price alone. We have an obligation toward Mexico.”

As to when the high delegation of tourism leaders will be heading to Mexico, Rifai said: “We hope to do this with our partners, the Mexican operators and the Mexican government. We are in constant touch with the Mexican Tourism Minister Rodolfo Elizondo, and he is always in contact with us. We know he is doing the wright thing with his team. We are putting together some elements in how we can pay back in terms of recognition. Mexico must not be left alone, particular[ly] the tourism sector from what is happening globally and what they have embarked correctly.”

According to him, he was on ground zero on the second or third day with the minister of tourism, and the situation was just unfolding. “The message I sent there on behalf of the tourism sector was ‘no travel restrictions.’ Now we can even be more confident about it and say it with some clear and scientific backing to this.”

He added: “We will continue to work with them so they get all the assistance and support they may need. There seems to be some kind of a public stand and need for a statement in regards to Mexico, and that is what we are thinking. There could be other ways. That is not the only way, but I think we need to be coming up with a public statement not only regarding Mexico but regarding this whole thing.”

When asked how tourism leaders have so far reacted to his “Let’s go to Mexico” campaign, the UNWTO official said, “Very positively. It will happen as soon as we manage the details. It’s a matter of days not weeks.”

World Travel & Tourism Council CEO and president Jean Claude Baumgarten has also expressed his support for Rifai effort to bring tourism leaders to Mexico. Asked if he would join Rifai, Baumgarten said: “Absolutely! I think it is important step to show that there should be no restrictions on travel because of the swine flu threat. And, to show our support for the Mexican government which has done a great job in handling the crisis.”

With the World Health Organization (WHO) as the main source of information on swine flu, Rifai said: We have agreed, not just within the UN system, but even globally, to speak in one voice and hear one line, and that is the WHO line. We have to do that; we absolutely have to do that. We can’t demonstrate and exhibit our own different interpretations in our different ways.

“The most important part of this, besides the major medical part, which is larger than the concern of our industry, is that WHO is very clearly saying, no travel restrictions, because travel restrictions have not proven to be contributing to the spread of the disease, whether you travel or not. What really needs to be done is in the realm of measures and precautions and steps and manuals and guidelines that have to be followed, and stopping travel is not one of them.

“So we are following along the same line. The more significant part in the way we are interacting in the sector in this particular flu situation, is that the tourism sector represented in our representative as UNWTO within the UN system and within UNWTO or within WHO are plugged so integrally. We are in constant contact with them. We have our people inside the kitchen. We have our voice being clearly heard within the medical sector, and I think that’s an extremely important element, because you are always reminded of the consequences of whatever you do or you don’t do, whatever you say and you don’t say, and its impact on the tourism sector.”

Does the incoming UNWTO secretary general think WHO has the authority to be source on the swine flu threat? “Absolutely. They are saying stopping travel will not help and not add anything to the solution. They say that history has taught us that travel restrictions had not limited the spread. What is limiting the spread are other measures, and they make the other measures clear, and they fall into range of health precautions – and not travel restrictions.”

Listen to the entire interview: http://www.travelwirenews.com/linda/rifai15may09.mp3