What we can’t ignore in tourism development

UN World Tourism Organization Secretary General Taleb Rifai, in this Pacific Asia Travel Association interview, says sustainability is now the biggest challenge facing the global tourism sector.

unwto sec gen taled rifai
The future of travel and tourism in Asia Pacific depends on sustainable tourism development, says UNWTO secretary-general Taleb Rifai. Image: Hotelier Middle East

As a champion of sustainable tourism growth, what are the biggest challenges — and therefore opportunities — that you’ve seen in the industry?

Definitely, the biggest challenge that the global tourism sector faces is sustainability. Tourism continues to grow exponentially — an average of 5 per cent a year since 2010 — and by 2030, we expect international tourists to reach 1.8 billion. We simply cannot ignore these facts and let the sector grow unmanaged, or we risk damaging the environment and cultural heritage, depleting natural resources and disrupting the social values of the host communities that tourism impacts.

What many don’t realize is that sustainability is also a great opportunity for economic development and green growth. Sustainable tourism development is as much about protecting the environment and societies as it is about creating wealth in destinations through lucrative and long-lasting tourism enterprises.

To refer to the Green Economy Report by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), shifting to sustainable tourism is critical to achieving economic growth, job creation and stimulating green economies. I would also like to highlight that world leaders at the Rio +20 Conference in 2012 recognized tourism as a major contributor to sustainable development, has close linkages to other sectors, creates decent jobs, and generates trade opportunities.

Noting the boom in tourist activity and aviation into and within Asia Pacific, what are some of your greatest concerns about the rapid growth of travel and tourism within Asia Pacific?

I would say my concern about the rapid growth of tourism in Asia and the Pacific, while most welcome, is ensuring what I would term as “fair tourism.” Tourism development should be grounded in responsibility and sustainability so that host communities are engaged and therefore able to receive the many benefits of tourism.

Sustainable tourism development is as much about protecting the environment and societies as it is about creating wealth in destinations through lucrative and long-lasting tourism enterprises.

Considering that many of the developing countries in Asia are the ones experiencing rapid tourism growth, it is fundamental to integrate local communities into the tourism value chain as a means to create jobs as well as foster opportunities for small and medium enterprises in related sectors such as agriculture and the creative industries. In addition, tourism income can be redirected to initiatives that safeguard precious cultural and natural resources and thus ensure its long-term operations for the benefit of local populations.

With regard to the ASEAN Economic Community, what do you hope will be achieved in 2015? What goals do you think will require more time to develop?

I would like to see greater priority placed on sustainable tourism development, particularly as Southeast Asia will continue to be one of the fastest growing sub-regions until 2030. We should not be complacent about this rapid growth, on the contrary, we must sharpen our focus on sustainability. In this respect, UNWTO has been working closely with ASEAN member countries towards adopting the standards of sustainable tourism development to safeguard its social, economic and environmental structures.

How do you think the industry can improve on developing human capital, especially in emerging Asia Pacific regions?

Increasing tourism education and training and capacity building at all levels can definitely help improve human capital. We must bear in mind that tourism, as compared to other economic sectors, affords fast entry to the labor market, extending its opportunities to traditionally marginalized segments of society such as women and youth. Yet it should not stop at entry level — investment in skills building is vital in order to build, attract and maintain upstanding professionals in the sector. Technology can also be an influential factor, especially in a region that has largely embraced emerging technologies.

How can and should the industry ready itself for the opportunity and challenges these new travelers represent, both in terms of sheer number and unique needs?

The tourism sector should be aware of the changes that come alongside tourism’s expansion. Information technology, for example, is vastly transforming the sector in more ways than we can imagine. In light of the economic crunch, new technologies and social media have given birth to the collaborative consumption model. The “sharing economy” now gives travelers the opportunity to stay at a destination longer, immerse with locals and gain inside information within their budget. These developments are rapidly changing the sector, providing many opportunities but also challenges that need to be addressed in order to go forward.

In your opinion, the future of travel & tourism in Asia Pacific depends most importantly on what?

Sustainable tourism development. Without a doubt, the future of the sector depends on this overriding imperative.

Looking back at your career, what was the one move that was most courageous, or the springboard to where you are today?

I think every experience is never an exclusive event; I’ve always learned more with each stage in my career and it naturally opens more doors towards other opportunities and responsibilities.

As an example, my educational background in architecture and urban design saw me through several large-scale projects in Jordan when I was appointed as Minister of Tourism and Antiquities back in 2001. These projects included founding Jordan’s first Archaeological Park in the ancient city of Petra, in collaboration with UNESCO and the World Bank.

I was also involved with large projects in Jerash, the Dead Sea and Wadi Rum. Working with these projects introduced a greater awareness of the utmost importance of sustainability, particularly since these World Heritage sites continue to draw numerous tourists from all over the world. This is a lesson that I have taken very much to heart, and I would say is one of the fundamental principles grounding my work today.

What do you hope your legacy will be regarding travel and tourism in the Asia Pacific regions?

I truly hope that tourism and travel will gain the prominence it deserves and that the sector will continue to be given priority in the region’s government agendas. The tourism sector is unique in that it has the capability of fostering development, economic growth, job creation, and international peace and understanding – something that we need in these times. Far from a personal legacy, I would like to see a travel legacy become a stronghold in the region.

This interview has been republished with permission from PATA.org

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