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«Sustainability is the key to protecting natural, cultural and historical assets» – Taleb Rifai

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Picture of Taleb Rifai, Secretary-General of the World Tourism Organization

Taleb D. Rifai (Jordan, 1949)

Taleb Rifai is the current Secretary-General of the World Tourism Organization, the United Nations agency responsible for the promotion of sustainable and universally accessible tourism. Mr. Rifai ‎supervises about 110 full-time staff at the UNWTO’s Madrid headquarters.


The 2012 Word Tourism Day will be celebrated in Maspalomas (Gran Canaria, Spain). What will be the theme for this year’s event?

The 2012 World Tourism Day theme is ‘Tourism and Sustainable Energy: Powering Sustainable Development’. This theme was chosen to coincide with the United Nations International Year of Sustainable Energy for All, and will be an opportunity to raise awareness of the many sustainable energy initiatives in place in tourism, including in Spain and the Canary Islands, and how these are contributing to tackling the double challenge of climate change and poverty reduction while making the tourism sector more competitive.

As hosts to over 12 million visitors p.a., the Canary Islands’ economy thrives heavily on their tourism industry. These islands’ natural, cultural and historic heritage stands as their most precious touristic asset. What type of actions does the UNWTO take in order to monitor and demand protection of such assets?

Sustainability – environmental, economic and social – is the key to protecting natural, cultural and historical assets and is at the core of all UNWTO activities.

Around the world, UNWTO engages with leading international experts, research and academia to generate cutting-edge knowledge on sustainable policies, tools and good practices and devise the necessary know-how to advice government on the most adequate policies to follow. At the same time, UNWTO is involved in several capacity-building activities to facilitate the implementation of these policies and tools while providing technical assistance to ensure the integration of sustainability criteria in destination planning and management.

In terms of instruments, the UNWTO Global Code of Ethics for Tourism, a set of guidelines to steer responsible and sustainable tourism growth, clearly lays out concrete steps that countries, the private sector and tourists themselves should take to ensure the sustainability of their tourism sectors and the protection of their assets. UNWTO also counts on a network of Sustainable Tourism Observatories which monitor, gather and report data on the impacts of tourism based on UNWTO sustainable tourism indictors.

Timesharing and all-inclusive-type business models have proven extremely beneficial in generating traffic and profits to the industry, as well as in propelling economic development in new or less known destinations. However, in the view of smaller players, these models have also had a long-term negative impact. The criticisms are mainly two: that these types of visitors usually spend their time and money within the realm of the operator which sold them the package, hence preventing other businesses from benefiting as well, and that the extremely low prices offered by large companies have created a quasi-monopolistic environment in some areas. What are your thoughts on this, and what does the UNWTO’s research on sustainable tourism say about future business models for the industry?

Time-sharing and all-inclusive models, while bringing important opportunities for tourism to expand, also entail many challenges. These include for some, but not necessarily for all, the issue of price, but more importantly the issue of their integration within host communities. This is particularly true for all-inclusive models which provide within their infrastructure much of the services and products that tourists need during their stay. It is thus important to advance in tourism policies which, while respecting these models, create opportunities for local people and businesses to benefit from tourism. These might include policies which incentivize resorts to hire local people and use local products for building and consumption within the resort. This would allow business in sectors like agriculture, construction or handicrafts to benefit as well.

Another major concern relates to tourism leakages. These leakages, occurring particularly in developing countries, exist when a significant part of tourism earnings ‘leak out’ of the national economy, through imported goods and services or as a result of the repatriation of profits by overseas resort developers. Again here, governments need to devise adequate policies, such as stimulating local investment in specific areas with a view to satisfying tourists’ needs with locally produced goods and services.

Without measures such as these, such business models are simply unsustainable, especially as consumers continue to demand and expect economic, social and environmental responsibility from their tourism providers.

What is the actual ground work that the UNWTO conducts in order to forward human rights in the tourism industry?

The Global Code of Ethics for Tourism is anchored to the same standards for integrity, mutual respect and dignity enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Against this background, the promotion of human rights through the Code of Ethics is fundamental to the work of the Organization.

We advise our Member States as to the respect for human rights in tourism through encouraging States to put into practice, and include in their legislation, the principles of the Code within their respective territories. Although voluntary by nature, and thus not legally binding, the Code of Ethics entails a moral obligation for all UNWTO Member States, who adopted it by consensus, as well as to the private companies which engage with it. Compliance with, and the implementation of, its provisions is, therefore, seen as a moral imperative. We closely monitor the Code’s implementation and report on the subject both to the General Assemblies of UNWTO and the United Nations, thereby giving States who uphold human rights greater visibility, and all the more incentive to fulfil their human rights-related obligations in tourism.

At the same time, there is a clear movement to accept more binding conditions when adhering to the Code. Fourteen of Spain’s most prominent tourism businesses signed a commitment to the Global Code of Ethics for Tourism on the occasion of the first International Congress on Ethics and Tourism, held in September 2011 in Madrid, publicly pledging to uphold, promote and implement the values of responsible and sustainable tourism development championed by the Code.UNWTO is working to expand the number of private stakeholders in this regard.

Child abuse has long been identified as a terrible byproduct of tourism in some developing countries. Tell us about initiatives undertaken by the UNWTO to help eradicate this problem.

Since 1997, UNWTO has been leading the World Tourism Network on Child Protection, formerly known as the Task Force for the Protection of Children in Tourism. Guided by the principles of the Global Code of Ethics, it supports efforts to protect children from all forms of exploitation in tourism. Although its main focus is the protection of minors against sexual exploitation, it also encompasses the issues of child labor and child trafficking.

Alongside the work of the Network, UNWTO regularly joins forces with outside partners to combat the child exploitation in tourism. A number of initiatives were put in place with the European Commission, for example, including training modules for schools and universities on the sexual exploitation of children in tourism. UNWTO also worked alongside ECPAT International, a global network for the elimination of child prostitution, child pornography and the trafficking of children for sexual purposes, in the drafting of their Code of Conduct. This Code is today one of the most recommended practices related to child protection in the tourism sector. UNWTO also teams up with other UN agencies to disseminate the international child protection campaign, “Don’t Let Child Abuse Travel”, which counts on the broad support of many national governments, tourism boards and other UN agencies.

The majority of the aforementioned private companies which pledged their commitment to the Code of Ethics also signed the Code of Conduct for the Protection of Children from Sexual Exploitation in Travel and Tourism, committing themselves to concrete measures to protect children. This shows that these mechanisms are on the right track, as they are not only a political vehicle but also of practical use.

In certain countries, tourism is a path out of poverty. As measured by the UNWTO, what is the real impact of the tourism industry in developing nations as both an economic and social engine?

Tourism gives rise to vital foreign exchange, investment and know-how for developing countries; with a significant multiplier effect on many other areas of the economy. At the same time, tourism is an extremely labor-intensive sector and offers a fast entry-point into the workforce, especially for women and young people. As such, it provides crucial opportunities for fair income, social protection, gender equality, personal development and social inclusion for the most vulnerable.

Numbers leave no room for doubt. International tourist arrivals to the world’s 48 Least Developed Countries (LDCs) grew from 6 million in 2000 to over 17 million in 2010. During the same period, international tourism receipts climbed from US$ 3 billion to over US$ 10 billion. As a result, tourism is currently among the top three sources of export earnings for nearly half of the LDCs, meaning it is a key sector for their participation in the global economy. In some developing countries, particularly small island states, tourism can account for up to 25% of GDP.

This year’s G20 Summit will take place Los Cabos, one of Mexico’s most important tourism destinations. What is the UNWTO’s outlook for Mexico’s tourism sector in the coming years? What are its current challenges?

Mexico, among the world’s top ten tourism destinations and number one in Latin America, received 22 million international tourist arrivals in 2010, generating US$ 12 billion in export earnings. While it is hard to make estimations of tourism growth for individual countries, the Americas as a region is expected to continue to grow at between 2%-4% in 2012, a positive framework for Mexico’s continued growth.

Challenges for Mexico include those facing most mature tourism destinations; competition from other destinations and keeping growth sustainable. Nevertheless, Mexico is well aware of these challenges, and, most importantly, Mexico is an example to the world for the work it has done to place tourism as a top priority in the national policy agenda. Just last year, President Calderón called for a united effort across all government ministries and departments to promote the sector and launched the National Agenda for Tourism. With this backing at the highest level, I have little doubt Mexico will maintain its reputation as leading destination.

The current world crisis is certainly exacerbating migratory movements around the globe. This will surely impact tourism as some nations may opt to harden their entry requirements. What is the UNWTO’s stance on this aspect of tourism?

UNWTO is very clear on this front. Travel facilitation, and in particular visa facilitation, can be a very effective way to stimulate demand in tourism and consequently contribute to economic growth and job creation. Unfortunately, complicated, lengthy and overpriced entry formalities and visas are still making it difficult for many to travel, especially from rapidly growing economies. As countries around the world look to boost their economies, making it easier for tourists to visit and spend in their economies visa facilitation is a key issue and one that should be given bigger attention and efforts.

The UNWTO is based in Spain, one of the world’s leading tourism destinations. The current crisis is perhaps a sensible opportunity for Spain to rely on – and build upon – its tourism industry for growth and job creation. In which areas do you think Spain should focus in order to revitalize its tourism industry?

Spain is another example of a country that fully understands the importance of tourism to its economic well-being and has been a leading example in implementing a strong national policy framework for its tourism sector. This was strengthened when the recently elected Prime Minister, Mariano Rajoy, gave his first speech as Prime Minister and pointed to tourism as one of the priority areas for helping Spain through the current challenges. The reinstating of the Spanish Secretariat for Tourism is a further clear signal of the political acknowledgement of the relevance of the sector for the national economy and Spain’s international image.

Again, as a mature destination, Spain must respond to new trends in tourism and an ever more demanding consumer. As consumers become increasingly environmentally-conscious, destinations will have to respond to shifts in public expectations and commit themselves to environmental sustainability. Diversification will also be key for competing on the international tourism market. I am confident that the Spanish authorities share this vision, as I recently confirmed at a private meeting with the newly appointed Minister for Industry, Energy and Tourism, José Manuel Soria.

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