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18 Nov, 2003

As Wars Rage, Walls Re-Emerge

Barriers to travel, widely thought to be falling precipitously in the last decade of the 20th century, are re-emerging in the first decade of the 21st century. The travel & tourism industry has no clue what to do about it.

– From the World Travel Market 2003 in London

The first in a series of dispatches taking an in-depth look at the issues, policies, strategies and trends that emerged at one of the world’s largest travel trade shows.

In this dispatch:

1. AS WARS RAGE, WALLS RE-EMERGE: Barriers to travel, widely thought to be falling precipitously in the last decade of the 20th century, are re-emerging in the first decade of the 21st century. The travel & tourism industry has no clue what to do about it.

2. A POLITICIAN WITH THE COURAGE OF HIS CONVICTIONS: The Mayor of London, Ken Livingstone, is a major supporter of the World Travel Market as well as a major opponent of the war in Iraq. Travel & tourism has much to learn from him.

3. WHEN THE MAYORS TOOK A STAND: Mr Livingstone was not the only European mayor to oppose war and conflict. The mayors of Berlin, Brussels, Vienna, Paris and Rome did so, too. These are the kind of politicians the industry needs to identify, support and forge alliances with.

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Thousands of travel industry executives from around the world converged at the World Travel Market in London for four days of deal-making designed to help them recover from the worst six months in history. For all the talk of industry resilience and bounceback, what happens next will be shaped less by the WTM delegates who came and left last week and more by the individual who will be in London this week.

Like a flash in the pan, SARS came and went. But the inter-connected conflicts — the war in Iraq, the war on terror and the Israeli occupation of Palestine — continue, underscoring the global instability that is manifesting itself in events like the bombing of the expatriate compounds in Riyadh and the Jewish synagogues in Istanbul. Muslims are not the only terrorists. The political turbulence in Sri Lanka and Nepal shows how quickly fortunes can change. Other non-Islamic countries like Myanmar and Zimbabwe, ruled by despots, have their own share of controversies.

All of the above countries have a vital or growing interest in tourism. Ethnic, religious and political issues are popping up in a clearly unstable world. Just as the Information Technology revolution did not produce the much-vaunted paperless society, neither has the 1989 fall of the Berlin wall and the end of communism ushered in the widely-forecast era of peace, stability, democracy and economic growth. In fact, new walls are emerging.

Like the physical wall being built in Israel, the “war on terror” is also rebuilding walls which, in the 1990s, were being gradually broken down between peoples and societies. Many countries are being forced to review their visa relaxation policies. One-sided and non-transparent travel advisories are becoming increasingly problematic. Racial profiling is rearing its ugly head, as is choice of holiday destination based on political affinity.

Countries are competing to highlight their ‘safeness’ as a marketing proposition. Crisis management strategies are becoming part of conference agendas even as irritation grows with coverage of conflicts by the mainstream media, and their impact on marketing plans. The investment in physical equipment to enhance security will cost an already thin-margin and low-yield industry billions of dollars in open-ended recurring expenses.

These ‘walls’, known in the 1990s as impediments and obstacles to travel, were once on their way out. The World Travel & Tourism Council (WTTC), the exclusive club of multinational corporate chief executives, was at the forefront of this fight. Removal of “barriers to growth” — a broad phrase which included everything from visa restrictions to addressing infrastructure bottlenecks — was one of its primary mantras. In the Asia-Pacific region, the regional economic development group, APEC, did a major study to identify impediments to tourism growth and issued a whole range of recommendations on how to eliminate them.

These ‘walls’ were seriously and vigorously tackled in the 1990s, at the highest political and economic level. Today, they get lacklustre attention.

The WTTC, which has just issued a “Blueprint for New Tourism” still includes removal of impediments as a strategic priority but now positions them within the context of addressing security concerns. That is a curious position; security concerns are becoming ‘walls’ in themselves, and they are getting higher. Fortifying every hotel, airport, convention centre, shopping mall, tour coach, cruise ship, railway and embassy in the world with the best equipment money can buy will cost dearly and yet contribute little to improved security. The only financial beneficiaries will be the companies and consultants who build the walls, and the countries in which they are based. Although known for its formidable number-crunching abilities, the WTTC has yet to venture an estimate about how much security beef-ups will cost the industry in future.

The other global group normally expected to take a leadership role in addressing such issues, the World Tourism Organization, is also showing little recognition of their collective seriousness. Like the WTTC, it is focussing on addressing the symptoms, not the cause. At its annual general assembly in China, the WTO received approval to become a part of the UN system. That will mean closer alignment with achieving the UN’s Millennium Development Goals, of which poverty alleviation is a major part. WTO executives say a stronger UN connection will foster closer links with other organisations like the UN Conference on Trade and Development and the UN Development Programme.

The WTO’s new priority is “Liberalisation with a Human Face” and ST-EP (Sustainable Tourism — Eradicating Poverty). However, harking back to the 1990s, a flourishing tourism industry was already helping to alleviate poverty, well before the WTO bureaucracy decided to get in on the act. The WTO is supposed to be in the tourism-promotion business but the amount of publicity being given to the poverty-alleviation initiative is making WTO-watchers wonder which is the real agenda.

The WTO has taken up the issue of travel advisories with various Foreign Affairs ministries and offices to ensure greater fairness and accuracies in their wording. That is only scratching the surface; travel advisories are colonial, hypocritical and rife with double standards. They should be scrapped. On the second day of the WTM, commuters of the London Underground were greeted with blaring headlines in the Metro Daily that Britain itself faced a greater than average risk of a suicide bombing because of its large Muslim population. The story was greeted with howls of outrage from VisitLondon Chief Executive David Campbell who denounced it as “completely and utterly irresponsibleàdespicable scaremongering, showing complete disregards for Londoners and visitors.”

Jeez, that’s exactly what Asian, African and Latin American countries say when travel advisories are issued about them. To date, none of them have issued a travel advisory to the UK.

In the last decade of the 20th century, the prevalence of a larger measure of global political and economic stability encouraged governments to start dismantling the walls hindering the free flow of peoples and goods. The cancerous Israel-Palestine problem, arguably the world’s longest-running unsettled issue, is perhaps the best case in point. During the Clinton administration, vigorous attempts were made to address it. Though there were ups and downs, at least the talks continued. The prospects of independence and statehood for the Palestinian people kept terrorism at insignificant levels.

The feel-good atmosphere was electric even at the travel trade shows. For the first time, Palestinians and Israelis were addressing joint press conferences at the WTM and ITB about rebuilding tourism in the Holy Land in the buildup to Bethlehem 2000 celebrations. The feeling of hope and optimism pervaded through the travel shows. The industry could plan for the future with confidence.

Tourism blossomed, as governments relaxed visa regimes, invested in infrastructure and removed impediments to growth. A handful of committed, visionary global political leaders sought to fulfill the dream of a wall-free, borderless world. Without their efforts, the WTTC would have had no case to flog its job-creation and economic development via tourism agenda.

Then, into the first decade of the 21st century, rode George W. Bush, a Christian fundamentalist who by his own admission did not even know the name of the President of Pakistan before he took office and cared little about the Middle East situation. The Jewish fundamentalist government of Ariel Sharon, elected to power in February 2001, just three months after George W. Bush’s election, added further fuel to the fire. Then came the Muslim fundamentalist attack of September 11, and the war on terror ‘crusade’ was on. The Islamic, Jewish and Christian fundamentalists went for each other, triggering yet another oil-driven war in Iraq based on claims now proven to be utterly false.

This week, President Bush will ride herd into London. What happens between him and Prime Minister Blair, the two self-proclaimed leaders of the free world and lead shepherds of the conflict in Iraq, will decide the outcome of all the hard work done at the World Travel Market last week to resuscitate and revive tourism. Both leaders are facing an increasingly aware and sceptical publics, declining trust and popularity at home and upcoming election battles. Will their meeting lead to more walls, or less? Will they seek to heal wounds and make peace, or will they seek more ‘wag the dog’ conflict and confrontation, creating more problems for travel & tourism?

Mr Bush is facing a less than warm welcome. Reading the British media last week, as well as perusing the best-sellers in London bookshops, there is no love lost for him. Ditto, in the travel & tourism industry. Informal discussions with WTM 2003 delegates at the Asian, Australian, African, Middle East and Latin American stands yielded not one favourable mention of the Bush administration. Even the lofty New York Times on November 16 turned to the travel & tourism industry for a quote on how Europe feels about Mr. Bush. Wrote the paper:

“Mr. Bush will find it hard to shake the perception among European critics that he is anything more than a tool of oil interests and a coterie of close, neoconservative advisers and an implacable opponent of many cherished European ideas on the environment, the Middle East and other issues. His frequent allusions to his own Christian faith may not have won friends, either. ‘He thinks the same way as Philip II did in the 16th century: as long as we believe in God we’re going to win,’ said Mayte Embuena, a 43-year-old tour guide in Madrid. ‘He doesn’t know anything about history, economics or sociology; he’s governing thanks to his faith, his mother’s advice and the help of four friends’.”

Wrote Yasmin Alibhai-Brown, a columnist in The Independent, “Only fools and Republican neo-cons believe the world today is a safer place than two years ago.” Not surprisingly, many WTM delegates asked the troubling question: “Can the travel & tourism industry afford another four years of Mr Bush?”

It is not just the world that is taking a hit; so is the US. According to the Travel Industry Association of America’s (TIA) latest Market Share Indicator report, the US will see market share declines in 16 of the top 25 markets in 2003. Market share from Venezuela will drop the most, falling nearly 13 percent in 2003, followed by Brazil (-9.3%). The US is also projected to lose market share from Argentina, Australia, Belgium, China, Colombia, France, Germany, Ireland, Italy, Japan, South Korea, Spain, Switzerland and Taiwan.

According to US TIA president and CEO, William S. Norman, “The US remains a top destination for many international travellers, but as the number of travellers worldwide grows each year, a smaller percentage of them are choosing to visit our country. This is the real challenge facing our industry and a reminder of why it’s vital to have an ongoing campaign to market the US internationally.”

At the WTM, the US TIA ran double-page spreads in the show’s daily newspaper to maintain a profile. But the traditional American flamboyance and marketing effort was uncharacteristically subdued. The turnout of their normally high-flying corporate chief executives was below normal. Douglas Baker, Deputy Assistant Secretary for Service Industries, Tourism and Finance, US Department of Commerce, no-showed at the Forecast Forum. At the US pavilion, sniffer dogs were seen making the rounds every morning and plain-clothes security personnel patrolled the area.

Wars and conflict are the causes that trigger the symptoms of travel advisories, visas and security upgrades. These re-emerging walls are all very costly to build, maintain and police. Eventually, they are unsustainable. Regrettably, none were addressed collectively and in detail at the various WTM 2003 forums and seminars. The new mantra is that the industry will have to get used to them and learn to live with them. At the WTM Forecast Forum, Rolf Freitag, Founder and Chairman of IPK International Tourism Consulting Group said the industry will just have to learn to “manage the unexpected.” If that is the best response strategy the industry can come up with, it is in serious trouble indeed.

The conflicts that drive up the walls are considered ‘political issues’ that are too ‘sensitive’ for the industry to touch. Major American multinational companies see these walls as being necessary to enhance security. As these companies generate millions of dollars worth of leisure, meetings and incentive business, nobody wants to take a position that would cost them that business, or otherwise incur the wrath of the US government.

This fence-sitting approach lands up reflecting badly on the industry itself. Mr Louis d’Amore, President and Founder of the International Institute of Peace through Tourism, said, “It is time to mobilise a new visionary leadership within the travel & tourism industry — an industry that we all boast is the world’s largest.” He called for a leadership that shows both “courage and wisdom.”

In turn, Stephen Dowd, chief executive of the British Incoming Tour Operators Association, noted that when the recent foot-and-mouth disease hit the British economy, the much better organised agriculture industry received more help from the UK government than tourism, largely because it had a more united front. He said one of the lessons learnt from foot-and-mouth as well as other developments like 9/11 and the war in Iraq was the need for travel & tourism to speak with one voice, loudly and with a clear message “if we are to be treated with the respect that this industry deserves.”

Respect, however, needs to be earned, and in the absence of leaders with courage and wisdom to take a stand, the walls are likely to only get higher.

New challenges are emerging. Elections are coming up in India, the Philippines and Indonesia. In an assessment released on November 11, political risk assessment company, Control Risks Group, said that India’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) may consider that it would benefit politically from an upsurge in communal violence between Hindus and Muslims in the run-up to the election, which would have significant security implications for foreign businesses and personnel. In Indonesia, the group added, in the wake of the 5 August JW Marriott bombing in Jakarta and the 12 October 2002 Bali bombings, another bomb attack on a Western ‘soft’ target inside Indonesia must be expected.

Either of those developments would affect tourism. Indeed, communal and political tensions are worrying industry leaders like Mr Peter de Jong, chief executive of the Pacific Asia Travel Association whose membership includes India, Indonesia and many other countries with large Muslim populations. He says he is becoming increasingly concerned about the “stigmatisation and typecasting” of Muslims at large and the perception of them being associated with anything related to violence, trouble and terrorism. He, too, bemoaned the fragmentation of the industry and cited the need for it to capitalise on its post-SARS unity to speak with one voice in addressing issues of long-term concern.

One such issue is that of media coverage of the various destinations hit by crises. Here again, the industry can expect scant relief. At a pre-WTM session organised by CNN, its chief international correspondent Christian Amanpour responded to complaints about media coverage thus, “You won’t get any satisfaction from us because we have different agendas. Our job is to report the news. That’s what we do.”

The Middle East remains a flashpoint. A survey of 7,500 Europeans commissioned by the European Commission and leaked to the media just before the WTM 2003 indicated that respondents felt Israel was the top threat to world peace, ahead of North Korea, Afghanistan and Iran. The survey, conducted in October, of 500 people from each of the EU’s member nations included a list of 15 countries with the question, ‘tell me if in your opinion it presents or not a threat to peace in the world’. Israel was reportedly picked by 59 per cent of those interviewed. Today, Israel is the only country in the world building a physical wall to protect itself.

The absence of recognition of the re-emerging walls and the need for proper policies to stop them from getting higher exposes the shallow thinking in an industry that frets about its lack of respect, desperately seeks it but does little to inspire or earn it, especially during times when it needs to draw upon the courage of its convictions. As groans turn to grins about the short-term ‘recovery’ and ‘resilience’ of tourism, the long-term ramifications of a worsening global geopolitical scenario are being ignored. As one industry executive describes it, “The industry will face bouts of ‘sickness’ now and then, but it is not going to do die.”

Perhaps not. But its real heroes are those who work the trade shows in search of every nook and cranny they can find in the walls to somehow move people through them. Their survival depends on it, not on writing policy papers and visionary blueprints. They were at the WTM 2003 in strength. One day, these people will hold their leaders accountable for fiddling while Rome burned and the walls re-emerged. That day may not be far off.



    If the travel & tourism industry is looking for leaders with at least some courage of their convictions, let it look to a politician who is a significant supporter of the World Travel Market, the Mayor of London, Mr Ken Livingstone.

    In January 2003, Mr Livingstone joined the Mayor of Berlin, another great city that hosts the world’s largest trade show, the ITB, in signing a declaration that a new conflict in Iraq ‘can and must be avoided’. Entitled ‘An appeal from the European Mayors against a war in Iraq’, the declaration was also signed by the Mayors of Rome, Paris, Vienna and Brussels, representing a huge proportion of the European population. (See the full text of the declaration below).

    Although the declaration eventually came to nought, Mr Livingstone at least took a stand, and in hindsight has been proved right.

    Mr Livingstone was concerned about the effect a war would have on the London economy. Research carried out by the Greater London Authority’s economics unit concluded that a war in Iraq could cost London ú1bn in lost tourism alone. The statement said that a conflict with Iraq would threaten the possibility of building peace in the Middle East and could expose the world to a ‘new escalation of terrorism’.

    Mr Livingstone said at that time: “I am standing shoulder to shoulder with the mayors of the largest capitals in the European Union in opposing plans for a war on Iraq. No-one has produced any evidence to justify a war which will fuel conflict in the Middle East and damage London’s economy. On 15 February, there will be demonstrations against the war in virtually every European capital. I am speaking at the demonstration that will take place in London.”

    In February 2003, Mr Livingstone commissioned a poll of 1,055 Londoners to see what they thought of an attack. The poll found that 79 per cent of Londoners thought that a terrorist attack in London will be more likely if British forces take part in a war on Iraq. Not a single person felt that attacking Iraq will make a terrorist attack less likely.

    Mr Livingstone said: “Londoners do not want this war. They are concerned for their safety and for the long term future of their city. As London Mayor, I am deeply concerned to protect the security of Londoners and safeguard the economy of the capital. That is why I am opposing this war.”

    According to the poll, 58 per cent of Londoners thought that the aims of a war for the United States and British governments are to secure or control Middle East oil supplies or overthrow Saddam Hussein, compared to just 22 per cent who thought the aim is to eliminate weapons of mass destruction. When asked what would justify war, only 2 per cent of people thought securing oil supplies would justify war.

    Perhaps the travel & tourism industry needs to take a few pointers from Mr Livingstone on how to earn respect rather than just demand it. I’m sure he will be only too happy to help.





      As the winds of a new war start to blow again over the Middle East, we, the mayors of the major capital cities of Europe, wish to forcefully assert that a new conflict in Iraq can and must be avoided. It must be avoided because, at the dawn of this 21st century, war cannot continue to be the “normal” instrument for solving problems.

      The war against Iraq risks causing many more problems than military unilateralism claims to solve. It risks reducing even more the possibility of building peace in the Middle East, causing new innocent victims, fuelling suffering and desperation, and blocking all possible democratic evolution throughout the entire region. It risks widening the gap that separates the West from the Islamic world and exposing the world to a new escalation of terrorism. Lastly, it would risk weakening dangerously the role of international organizations, in particular the UN, which, instead, needs to be strengthened.

      International terrorism, and any political or religious terrorism, must be condemned firmly, irremovably, and absolutely. In its regard, and that of anyone whose intention would be to impose a single thought, a single faith, or a single lifestyle or code of conduct, the action of the international community must be a determined one: an effective response that combines the reasons of resoluteness and peace, taking into account the political, social, and cultural complexities of our times.

      The hope for our future lies in the capacity to defuse the fundamentalist pressures by acting on the primary causes that feed and nourish them: balancing economic differences, cooperating in the development of the poorest countries, and encouraging the activities of reciprocal knowledge and tolerance.

      Saddam Hussein’s regime – like all those responsible for violating human rights and international law – can and must be opposed by the United Nations and the international community using the numerous instruments offered by law, legality, and international criminal justice. Iraq will have to comply with all UN Security Council Resolutions and closely co-operate with the inspectors. The recourse to the use of force, which can only be sanctioned by the UN, must be an extreme eventuality only.

      Europe, which has known the tragedy of the war that marked the 20th century, must cultivate its profound “missions”: human rights, freedom, democracy, and the fight against poverty and hunger in the world. And we are convinced that it is a strong Europe that is needed by our hope for a fairer world, one that is capable of patiently and tenaciously cultivating dialogue, the coexistence of peoples, and the most precious good we have: peace.

      The cities have a fundamental role to play, as centres of cultural development, sustainable economy, and social inclusion, as the very basis of democracy. Every time the discussion of peace touches on the search for solutions, the role of the cities comes into play, with the local powers called upon, as they will be more and more, to respond to their citizens’ request for a peaceful life, one of justice and safety.

      It is for this reason that we are launching our appeal to avoid the tragedy of a new war, and to build, instead, a road that can lead to security and peace for all the peoples of the Middle East.

      Walter Veltroni, Mayor of Rome; Ken Livingstone, Mayor of London; Klaus Wowereit, Mayor of Berlin; Bertrand Delano, Mayor of Paris; Michael Hupl, Mayor of Vienna; Freddy Thielmans, Mayor of Brussels.

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