The tourism industry has survived a series of difficulties in recent years, including conflict in the Middle East, militants attacking tourists, the SARS disease and natural disasters. And one respected body has been there to offer support to beleaguered tour operators, tourism boards, airlines and the hospitality industry—the United Nations World Tourism Organization (UNWTO).
Breaking Travel News caught up with the general secretary of the UNWTO, Francesco Frangialli and asked him about bird flu, politically motivated travel advisories and climate change.
BTN: What measures should the tourism industry be putting in place to prepare for avian flu and the potential outbreak and transmission in humans?
Frangielli: We are working closely with the (WHO) World Health Organization and the entire United Nations system to make sure the tourism sector is prepared for avian flu and we currently are finalising a series of guidelines for tourism.
In these guidelines we urge tourism authorities to become involved with their national Avian Influenza Task Force so that the concerns of the tourism sector can be put forward.
Secondly, we are recommending that each country form a Tourism Task Force for Avian Flu which would bring together aviation, hotels, cruise lines, etc - to begin developing contingency plans in case of a human pandemic.
Other recommendations include improving tourism communications so that good media relationships are in place in case avian flu turns into a crisis.
In its current state, avian flu is affecting tourism only in terms of the apprehensions that it is generating. But this could change dramatically. The possibility of the virus mutating and of being transmitted from human to human is probably the most serious threat faced by the world tourism industry.
Our sector was greatly affected in 2003 by the SARS epidemic in Asia and Canada.
Tourism has every chance of becoming both the vector and the victim of this scourge. When the last two pandemics occurred - in 1968 and in 1957 - the number of international travellers was six times lower and fourteen times lower, respectively, than it is today. We are preparing for this eventuality and will be able to provide reliable information to tourism administrations so that they can take the best decisions in real time.
BTN: How do you see climate change really impacting the tourism industry?
Frangielli: Favourable climatic conditions at destinations are key attractions for tourists. It is especially true for beach destinations and other forms of tourism, such as mountain tourism and winter sports, which are highly dependent on adequate precipitation and snow levels.
We are seriously worried about the future. In my village in the French Alps a study by the Meteorological Office shows that the duration of snow cover, which is currently five months a year at 1,500 metres, could be reduced by 40 days if temperatures rise just 1.8 degrees. Such climate change would represent millions of euros in lost revenues for Alpine destinations, so this is a real problem.
BTN: What do you see as the priorities of the UNWTO going forwards?
Frangielli: UNWTO is committed to the UN Millennium Development Goals, especially in regards to poverty alleviation.
The programme for sub-Saharan Africa was launched in 2003 and so far has trained more than 1,700 tourism professionals in the areas of economics and tourism statistics, ecotourism, park management, information technologies and image building.
For the ST-EP initiative, which stands for Sustainable Tourism Eliminating Poverty, we are carrying out the first projects in Africa and South America. UNWTO has also issued recommendations to member governments on how to get started on eliminating poverty through tourism.
Safety and security is another top priority. We need to identify ways to improve the safety of travellers. We have also started a new programme called Ethical and Social Dimensions of Tourism. This deals with issues such as the sexual exploitation of children, labour abuses and organised crime.
BTN: Travel advisories are getting more sensitive, but they still may be politically motivated. Should the UNWTO be producing independent travel advisories that people can use as benchmarks?
Frangielli: No, the UNWTO does not have the resources or the mandate to issue independent travel advisories or to adequately evaluate the safety of all of our member nations.
But we have been working on the thorny problem of travel advisories for several years. We have brought together tourism authorities and the representatives of Foreign Ministries- so that they can exchange views. I think we can see a new sensitivity, particularly from the British Foreign Office.
We have approved a series of recommendations on travel advisories with the aim of making them fairer. The key here is to provide as much detailed information, both on the location and the nature of the threat. Rather than issuing a blanket advisory to avoid a certain country, we want those writing them to be specific about exactly where it is unsafe to travel and why. Then we also urge travellers to consult a wide variety of sources.
Countries on the receiving end need to cooperate by providing plentiful and honest information to the foreign embassies based in their country so that the warnings can be lifted as soon as possible. Finally, we would like to see travel advisory websites updated regularly, so that outdated information is not left in place one moment longer than necessary.
BTN: You have created a Destination Council to promote sustainable development. Why was it set up?
Frangielli: In simple terms the newly created Destination Council provides an important place within the UNWTO for tourist boards and local officials who do not represent sovereign states.
The Destination Council gives its members a chance to share common problems and expertise. For example, at the first meeting the issue of rejuvenating mature destinations was discussed.
The council will also conduct research into issues of relevance, such as how to measure the economic impact of tourism at the local level, city tourism and event management.
BTN: You predict that by 2020, China will become the number one travel destination globally. Are you focusing more on upcoming countries?
Frangielli: We would like to see all of our member states be as dynamic in tourism growth as China. The government of China has made tourism development a top national priority and there is good support of this policy at all levels of government.
UNWTO technical support for tourism development is available to all of our members who ask. In addition, we tried to spotlight Africa when we held our General Assembly there last November and we hope that the next session in 2007 in Colombia will help promote tourism to that country and to all of South America.
BTN: What do you see as the greatest challenge facing the tourism industry at present? What is the greatest challenge facing the UNWTO?
Frangielli: There are two major challenges facing the tourism industry today and they are interlinked - safety and sustainability. We need to create the safest possible environment for tourism to flourish and then we need to protect the resources on which tourism depends.
UNWTO is currently in a very strong position, our membership has grown to 150 nations and our finances are sound. The conversion to a specialised agency of the United Nations is presenting new challenges and we need to work hard to integrate more with the work of other UN agencies, while at the same time retain the agility we have as a small, dynamic organisation.