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29 Jul, 2002

Leisure Conference to Break New Ground, Ponder New Topics

A fundamental and long overdue change is taking place in the subject matter discussed at global travel conferences, one that will have a profound impact on the forces shaping the future of the industry.

International tourism industry academics, meeting for the biennial 7th World Leisure Congress in Kuala Lumpur, will be setting aside well-worn topics like e-commerce, distribution and customer relationship management, and focussing on the impact of “unprecedented worldwide forces profoundly affecting the quality of life everywhere.”

Says Gerald Kenyon, the Canada-based Secretary-General of World Leisure, a non-profit, non-governmental organisation comprising mainly of university professors, “We have become concerned about the consequences of rapid technological change, population growth, climate change, environmental degradation, poverty, etc.

“However, it is also true that our world has become more open and transparent, providing much improved access to the more desirable fruits of civilisation. Indeed, our capacity to share has never been greater.

“Yet, singular events can have worldwide consequences. The September 11, 2001 attack on the United States is a graphic illustration of this, affecting many aspects of life including leisure, as the tourism industry quickly discovered. But, whether regarded positively or negatively, all such forces are having an impact upon how we provide for leisure experiences and the leisure experience itself.”

Mr Kenyon notes that “Today many of these issues are addressed in the context of globalisation, in both its economic and cultural forms. Issues such as regulation and control, homogenisation, brand identity and loyalty, consumerism and commodification have risen to the top of agendas for a variety of groups, governmental and non-governmental alike.

“What are the implications of globalisation processes for leisure? Beyond the several benefits, there is growing concern that the forces of globalisation pose a tangible threat to cultural diversity, and consequently to local identity and autonomy. Among the first to feel the effects has been leisure in all of its forms.”

Mr Kenyon added, “The question to be examined at the Kuala Lumpur Congress is: In providing for leisure, culture, sport and tourism, what is the best balance between the global and the local, and, more important, how do we achieve such a balance?”

Supported by the Malaysian Ministry of Youth and Sport, together with the Ministry of Culture, Arts and Tourism, this World Leisure Congress is the first time it is being held in Southeast Asia, a region where the good/bad impacts of globalisation are being debated in many countries and across many economic sectors.

Mr Kenyon says that the Congress theme “Global Forces, Local Responses” is both timely and important. “Seeking and finding a balance in human terms will be the challenge put to the delegates. Thus the Congress programme is designed not only to hear different points of view but also to provide ample opportunity to debate the merits of various approaches.”

Plenary sub-themes will focus on globalisation in leisure, culture, sport and tourism, including the impacts on national and local identity, cultural sustainability, communications media, emerging technology and multinational corporations.

Other themes will discuss the future of theme parks, resorts, natural areas, urban and rural regeneration through leisure. They will also assess the significance and impact of local mega-events like international sporting and cultural festivals and World Expos.

These themes are significant from several perspectives. The fact that they are being debated at all marks a departure from the long-standing perception that unquestioned acceptance of globalisation is a panacea for all economic ills.

It is also in line with the theme of United Nations which now frames its approach to socio-economic development in the context of ‘managing globalisation.’ In forums like the World Trade Organisation, representatives of developing countries underscore the words ‘free and fair’ trade, not just ‘free trade.’

The debate over globalisation is raging full blast in countries like Thailand as evidenced by the recent controversy over mega-stores. Similar concerns are coming to the fore in travel and tourism where locally-owned and -managed small and medium sized enterprises are at risk by advances of the major hotel, travel agency and tour operator conglomerates.

For tourism academics to take up this issue is of major importance because they bring a long-term approach to the debate and try to post some warning signs about the consequences of globalisation.

It is even more significant for the overall leisure patterns which are being impacted by globalisation in more ways than one. Corporate mergers, takeovers and bankruptcies are costing jobs by the thousands. Brutal cost-cutting means that fewer people are working longer hours. Technology is designed to improve ‘productivity’ but also increases stress.

All these trends, according to World Leisure, impact on the quality of life and availability of time for recreation. The travel industry feels the affect; those lucky enough to be able to still afford holidays book later, take fewer days off, and look more intensively for price-cutting bargains and special offers, which in turn affects yields and revenues.

At the same time, they fuel demand for spas, meditation courses and other ‘wellness treatments.’

Most of these long-term issues, especially related to environmental and cultural sustainability, were getting a higher profile on travel industry conferences until 9/11 which set everything back and renewed focus on the fight for market-share.

For tourism academics to maintain a check-and-balance watch on these prevailing forces is not only long overdue but eminently constructive so that a balance can be found early in the game.

Website: www.worldleisure.org

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