With international tourist arrivals expected to reach one billion a year by the end of 2012, Breaking Travel News catches up with Taleb Rifai, UNWTO secretary general, to find out what is on the agenda for the organisation this year.
Breaking Travel News: What is on the agenda for UNWTO in 2012?
Taleb Rifai: 2012 is an exciting year and something of a milestone for international tourism, with international tourist arrivals expected to reach one billion by the end of the year. Celebrating one billion tourists gives us an unparalleled opportunity to get across our main message: that tourism is a major player in economic growth, job creation, poverty reduction and a more sustainable future.
Yet, to fulfil these opportunities, and stimulate travel demand, particularly under the current economic conditions, we need to work more closely to remove some of the existing barriers to the expansion of the sector and expand its capacity to generate much-needed economic benefits and jobs. Examples of such barriers include unbalanced taxation, as well as lengthy and expensive visa procedures. During 2012, UNWTO, alongside other organisations, such as WTTC, IATA, the WEF and
ICAO, will work to advance the agenda of visa facilitation.
Major UNWTO events in 2012 include, among many others, World Tourism Day (September 27th), celebrated this year under the theme, ‘Tourism and Sustainable Energy: Powering Sustainable Development’, and officially hosted by Spain. Sustainability is, in fact, one of our top priorities this year, with the United Nations
Conference on Sustainable Development, or Rio+20, taking place in June.
On the whole, UNWTO will continue to work closely with its members on policies and practices to develop their tourism sectors in a competitive and sustainable manner. Work will continue on the issues of tourism in the Green Economy, consumer protection, market trends and statistics. We will also be supporting Egypt and Tunisia where UNWTO will hold two major conferences in April this year. At the same time, UNWTO will continue to implement technical assistance projects in over 100 countries around the world covering issues from tourism master planning to hotel classification.
BTN: International tourist arrivals grew by over 4% in 2011 to 980 million, according to the latest UNWTO World Tourism Barometer with Europe leading the way. To what do you attribute the impressive 6% growth in Europe?
TR: Despite the economic uncertainty, Europe was the best performing region in 2011 with, for the first time in history, over half a billion international tourist arrivals. Central and Eastern Europe and Southern Mediterranean destinations experienced the best results, each growing by 8%. Although part of the growth in Southern Mediterranean Europe resulted from a shift in traffic away from the Middle East and North Africa, destinations primarily profited from improved outbound flows from markets such as Scandinavia, Germany and Russia and the flexibility demonstrated by the sector and the right choice of public policies.
BTN: Next year you have predicted a 4% - 6% growth in Africa. How can lesser known destinations in the region take advantage of this expected surge? You recently urged companies to invest in Africa, which areas specifically would you say are priorities?
TR: Africa has been one of the fastest growing regions in the international tourism market. International tourist arrivals grew from 27 million in 2000 to 50 million in 2011, while tourism receipts, a vital source of foreign exchange for the continent, tripled in just one decade (from US$ 10 billion in 2000 to US$ 30 billion in 2010).
Lesser-known destinations have a lot to gain from building-up on brand Africa, while developing their own niche markets which often attract specialised high-end segments. In general, the factors critical to destination development are the existence of a business environment conducive to growth, adequate infrastructure and trained human resources. Another key issue, particularly for Africa, is connectivity: improving air access to and within the region. A further important opportunity lies in increased regional cooperation in areas such as joint product development, marketing and travel facilitation, namely visas, making it easier for, and incentivising, tourists to travel between destinations.
Diversification is also key. Africa’s principal tourism products for the major source markets currently revolve around culture and nature. These cultural and nature-based trips could be packaged in combination with Africa’s numerous other attractions such as beach tourism or the meetings industry, especially as Africa’s economic and trade links increase with other world regions such as Asia.
Sustainability should, of course, underlie all of the above. Tourists are increasingly aware of the culture and environment of the places they travel to. They are looking for destinations that not only do no harm to their surroundings, but actively make a positive difference. Emerging destinations and potential investors would be wise to keep this in mind as they develop tourism; investments in sustainability today will certainly pay off tomorrow.
BTN: With confidence in emerging markets expected to surge ahead of more advanced economies, which destinations do you expect to emerge as hotspots for 2012?
TR: Emerging economies had been leading tourism growth until 2011 when advanced economies took the lead. This was mainly due to the very strong results in Europe and the drop in arrivals in the Middle East and North Africa. This trend is expected to reverse once again in 2012, with emerging economies in Asia and the Pacific and Africa regaining the lead (growing at 4%-6%), followed by the Americas and Europe (2%-4%).
BTN: UNWTO is urging governments to consider advancing travel facilitation – in what ways can governments successfully do this?
TR: At a time of serious economic crisis, travel facilitation can be one of the most effective ways to boost national economies through tourism growth. Currently, complicated, lengthy and overpriced visa processes make it extremely difficult for many to travel, especially from rapidly growing emerging markets. By implementing measures to facilitate travel, in particular revising visas procedures, countries can stimulate demand and UNWTO is urging governments to consider advancing travel facilitation, an area in which in spite of the great strides made so far there is still much room for progress.
Technology, much of which has already been developed (biometric passports for example, or online visa applications) will play a major role in travel facilitation and we encourage countries to share their ideas and best practices in this field.
UNWTO has also embarked, together with WTTC, on a research project that aims to evaluate the impact of visa facilitation on job creation in tourism across the G20 economies. This study will be presented during the meeting of the T20 Ministers (Tourism Ministers from the G20 economies) to be held in Merida, Mexico (May 14th-15th, 2012).
BTN: Tourism Towards 2030 indicates potential for further expansion in coming decades. What will be the main challenges for the travel and tourism industry in realising this vision?
TR: UNWTO’s long-term forecast, Tourism Towards 2030, estimates that tourist arrivals will increase by an average 43 million a year over the next twenty years, reaching 1.8 billion by 2030. Both established as well as new destinations stand to benefit from this growth, provided they shape the appropriate conditions and policies conducive to growth.
The challenge lies in making sure this growth is sustainable, with maximum social and economic benefits for local communities and their built and natural environments. As such, it will be more important than ever that all tourism development be guided by the principles of sustainability.
BTN: How important is environmental sustainability in tourism in the work of UNWTO? In what ways do you encourage companies to implement this in their practice?
TR: As a major pillar of sustainable tourism, environmental sustainability is at the core of all UNWTO activities. UNWTO’s work in this area focuses primarily guiding and supporting the tourism sector, namely our Members States, to better understand the relationship between tourism and environmental sustainability and advance it through the adequate legal framework, application of new technologies and training.
As concerns companies, UNWTO works closely with the private sector to implement corporate social responsibility practices into business models. One example would be our Hotel Energy Solutions project, which provides hotels with a free, online toolkit, allowing them to assess their energy use and informing hoteliers of appropriate renewable energy options.
BTN: What are the key priorities for the UNWTO going forward?
TR: While competitiveness and sustainability remain at the heart of UNWTO’s agenda and programme of work, there are also a number of more immediate priorities going forward. As I have mentioned, travel facilitation is a key issue and an area of particular relevance as countries look to grow their economies but cannot make use of fiscal incentives or public investment. Taxation is also a major concern. The recent trend in introducing unbalanced taxation on travel continues to represent a serious setback for the sector and the hundreds of millions it employs, particularly in developing countries.
The political recognition of tourism’s economic potential continues to be a challenge. In this respect, UNWTO and WTTC will continue to present heads of state and government around the world with an Open Letter on the impact of tourism. So far, 18 heads of state and government have joined what we call the Leaders for Tourism Campaign, and in all cases it has been a unique occasion to draw their attention to the economic and social value of the tourism sector.
For more information visit http://www.unwto.org or go to Hall 20/127.