This week, Tourism Ministers of the G20 countries (neatly called “T20”), will meet, together with the heads of UNWTO, WTTC, PATA, and others, to finalize a proposed input to next month’s Heads of State meeting in Mexico.
The International Council of Tourism Partners (ICTP) supports strongly this initiative. Moreover, the subject under consideration by the T20 - Facilitation of Tourism and particularly e-visa’s, which we call streamlined travel, is one of the three priorities that ICTP has identified as key elements in its green growth and quality advocacy agenda, along with sustainable aviation expansion and fair taxes. So here’s our take on the issue.
It’s very much thanks to the vision of Mexico President Calderon on the role of tourism as a socio-economic driver that there is even a hope of engagement with the G20 at this critical moment in world affairs. The G20 is about big global policy issues, like financial markets, saving the euro and fighting terror – a positive paragraph about tourism in its communique will be a big success in itself.
For all the rhetoric surrounding the number of jobs that can be created by increased travel flows, the ones that matter the most to travelers (and if you think about it, also to destinations whose reputations are on the line) are in border processing agencies and security control, where staff cutbacks are actually a big part of the problem and where innovation and imagination could really make big, big change.
The challenge is that many governments talk a big game when it comes to tourism and jobs, but often those who are talking the loudest and extolling the job creation delivery of the sector, are the same ones who are cutting back on their support systems because of austerity programs. This makes no sense and even less in countries where travelers are also cynically targeted for special taxes, charges, and duties.
Twice as many staff, twice as many machines – more if necessary - and working shifts correlated to aircraft arrival times would make a huge difference, and smart processes that speed through pre-reviewed visitors and nationals while increasing the scrutiny of non-routine by secondary oversight. It’s not rocket science: it’s common sense and a real interest in decently moving people.
So, too, would turning the mechanics of visas into a real public-private sector partnership, while retaining even stronger security oversight, with government setting and controlling the entry criteria, but using smart and properly supervised private sector agencies for routine welcoming and processing.
What would make good sense is a very simple review and generalization of the best global practice – like Chinese or South Africans welcoming Australian e-visas, the APEC Business Card. Who would have thought a few short years ago that China’s borders would have a system where you can press a button to rate the performance of the border entry (and departure) agent?
Last but not least, the great future growth in visitor wealth creation and streamlined travel must not simply focus on the industrialized states. On the contrary, as these are the very export flows that can most help development, there needs to be parallel consideration to ensure that improved techniques and technologies are also made available to the poorest countries, as well as financial support for capacity building - systems improvement and staff training.
This last point may seem tough during austerity, but it will give help where it’s most needed and ensure that the T20 is inclusionary.
In the final analysis, however, streamlining travel is not just about increasing the number of travelers for socio-economic gain, although it is that – it’s also about decency in dealing with people and humanizing the system; less like herding sheep - more like welcoming visitors and encouraging exports.
The author, Professor Geoffrey Lipman, is President of ICTP and formerly Assistant Secretary General of UNWTO, President of WTTC, and Executive Director of IATA.