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27 Jan, 2004

World Social Forum 2004 Report 1: Tourism Civil Society On The Move

Is globalisation really “irreversible”? Not quite. Nobel prize winners Shirin Ebadi and Joseph Stiglitz are among the thousands who believe that globalisation needs some surgery and that “Another World is Possible.”

Imtiaz Muqbil was the only travel industry journalist to cover the World Social Forum 2004 in Mumbai. First of three exclusive dispatches on the WSF 2004.

1. TOURISM CIVIL SOCIETY ON THE MOVE: Tourism watchdog groups from Asia, Africa, Latin America and Europe participated for the first time in the World Social Forum. Energised and enthused, they are now planning to maintain the momentum by holding a global summit of their own.

2. GLOBALISATION IS REVERSIBLE: Is globalisation really “irreversible”? Not quite. Nobel prize winners Shirin Ebadi and Joseph Stiglitz are among the thousands who believe that globalisation needs some surgery and that “Another World is Possible.” The travel & tourism industry can no longer afford to ignore or trivialise this mass movement of civil society that is calling for change.

3. TRAVELLERS ADVISED: NO SERIOUS RISK FROM BIRD FLU: An urgent advisory from the Pacific Asia Travel Association about bird flu in Southeast Asia.



MUMBAI — Enthused by their first-time participation in the World Social Forum (WSF) here last week and the energy generated by hundreds of other like-minded groups, tourism activists and watchdog organisations are planning to maintain the momentum by holding a global summit of their own.

Tourism non-governmental organisations from India, Asia, Africa, Latin America and Europe worked together to organise a series of discussions and seminars at which speakers rallied around the WSF slogan, “Another World is Possible,” and launched a sub-slogan of their own: “Who Really Benefits from Tourism?”

Like the underlying themes of the main WSF, the tourism NGOs feel that an industry that claims to be ‘largest in the world’ has long gone without external check and balance mechanisms, a situation that they feel now needs to be rectified.

During the seminars, an Indian NGO talked of tourism encroachment in the Andaman Nicobar islands threatening the survival of an indigenous tribe. A representative of Macchu Picchu, the ancient Inca site in Peru, blasted a private UK company’s proposal to privatise the walking trails. A British NGO highlighted work being done to improve the poor conditions of porters who take trekkers into the Himalayas. Another Indian group talked of farms being taken over by developers for conversion into hundreds of acres of resorts for the rich.

A Gambian delegate shared experiences of a successful struggle against ‘all inclusive’ tours under which visitors basically buy an entire tour package, along with air-ticket, accommodation, meals and entertainment, before arriving in the tourist destination, leaving little room for contact with local people and precious little money behind in the destination itself. Two representatives of women’s organisations called on their kin to look at tourism as a critical developmental issue. Other speakers discussed tourism in the context of environmental regulations and labour rights.

The main groups who spearheaded the WSF tourism initiative were EED-Tourism Watch of Germany, the Hong Kong-based group Ecumenical Coalition on Tourism, and the Bangalore-based group Equations, each of whom chipped in US$ 3,000 to finance the WSF activities. Another group based in Basel, Switzerland, the Arbeitskreis Tourismus und Entwicklung (AKTE) helped fund the travel of delegates from Latin America.

The sessions were attended by dozens of interested listeners, many of whom were fascinated to learn that an industry which projects itself as being spotless and a major job-creator and income-distributor could also have so many associated and underlying problems. After the WSF, the entire group of NGO representatives met to finalise a post-WSF strategy that will maintain the momentum.

Mr. K.T.Suresh, co-ordinator of Equations, said the inaugural participation in the WSF, first mooted at the 2003 ITB Berlin, had brought tourism into the mainstream of WSF thinking and thus wrought a significant ‘political shift’ from being confined to a corporate-dominated, industry-led space into a ‘space that belongs to all of us.’

The groups recognise their limitations — inadequate funding, disparate networks, no central organisation, turf battles and the lack of a central message. They also need to establish recognition and legitimacy by clarifying who exactly it is they represent and speak for. The post-WSF strategy forum brought all these issues out on to the table. However, Mr. Suresh said the NGOs will have to demonstrate their ‘maturity’ and ‘transcend these limitations’ by coming together based on a platform of common objectives.

He proposed a global summit of international, regional and local tourism watchdog groups that would also be open to the travel trade, governments and consulting groups who, he said, need to better understand the concerns of local people and consequences of myopic development policies.

The proposal met with an enthusiastic response. The NGOs now aim to start seeing this through to fruition. However, the first steps will have to be smaller ones: Strengthening their information-exchange networks, upgrading research capabilities, databases and media contacts, becoming more active on the lecture circuit, etc.

The NGOs also plan to exploit the opportunities presented by the World Tourism Organisation (OMT-WTO) becoming part of the United Nations system. The UN welcomes the involvement of civil society.

The groups are at pains to explain that they are not anti-tourism. They recognise the industry’s contribution to culture, heritage, jobs and economic growth.

They are, however, against what the consider to be its ‘exploitative elements’ like land alienation, denial of access to resources, sex tourism, deprival of decision-making capabilities by local communities in what is basically considered to be a top-down development approach, etc.

Their agenda also has much in common with the wider issues raised by the hundreds of other NGOs at the WSF, such as water rights, deforestation, climate change, religious conflict, wars, terrorism, health and globalisation, all of which can have a significant short- to long-term impact on tourism.

Indeed, a number of areas emerged where the NGOs play a perfectly useful role. Ms Patricia Burnett of London-based Tourism Concern noted its recent organisation of a highly-charged seminar on confronting travel advisories which the travel industry feels are unfair, biased and not transparent but which the UK government has now promised to take another look at as a direct result of the pressure that emerged from the seminar.



Is globalisation really “irreversible”? For many years, that mantra resounded at many a travel conference and economic forum. But an energetic and increasingly high-powered World Social Forum 2004 in Mumbai last week raised the battle-cry, “Another World is Possible.” Hundreds of thousands of participating activists came away strengthened in their conviction that globalisation (and its first cousins, unilateralism and neo-liberalism) is reversible.

For the travel & tourism industry to ignore or trivialise this mass movement of civil society would be akin to the major airlines pooh-poohing the impact of low-cost airlines. The New York Times calls it the “world’s second superpower”. Nobel Peace Prize winner Shirin Ebadi, Nobel Economics prize winner Joseph Stiglitz, International Labour Organisation Director General Juan Somavia, former UN Human Rights Commissioner Mary Robinson (also a former President of Ireland) and former UNESCO Director General Federico Mayor were among hundreds of present and former international executives present. Interestingly, not a single travel industry grouping was represented, not even the World Tourism Organisation.

First held in Porto Allegre, Brazil, in 2001, the WSF is designed as an alternative voice to the World Economic Forum, the annual meeting of multinational and political leaders in Davos, Switzerland. It brings together “groups and movements of civil society that are opposed to neo-liberalism and to domination of the world by capital and any form of imperialism, and are committed to building a world order centred on the human person.”

The WSF’s policy guidelines position it as “an open meeting place for reflective thinking, democratic debate of ideas, formulation of proposals, free exchange of experiences and interlinking for effective action.” As the WSF has no central decision-making body, all individual groups are free to set their own agendas and find their own funding. It deliberately avoids becoming a “locus of power,” nor does it claim to “constitute the only option for interrelation and action by the organisations and movements that participate in it.” None of the individual groups have the right to “express positions claiming to be those of all its participants.” They are all, however, committed to making the WSF “a permanent process of seeking and building alternatives.”

This synergy makes the sum of the parts truly greater than the whole. It also leaves participants free to think global, act local, as per their individual agendas and perceptions. The hundreds of global movements and non-governmental organisations (NGOs) which attended this year included many in Asia. As with past WSFs, there was widespread denunciation of the US occupation of Iraq, the control the US and its allies have over institutions like the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank, as well as the growing power of multinational corporations, which are now bigger than most of the countries in which they invest.

In effect, the movement is trying to stave off what it sees as a renewed effort to re-colonise Latin America, the Middle East, Africa and Asia under the guise of economic development and democracy. They believe that neither governments, global institutions nor multinational companies can be trusted and that if real democracy is to take hold, all three need to operate under specific check and balance mechanisms, which civil society can play a role in providing.

Of the dozens of issues taken up, many have a significant direct and indirect impact on travel & tourism. They include militarisation, religious conflict, women’s rights, environmental damage, workers’ rights, media control, privatisation, land and water resources, genetically modified foods, health, indigenous and tribal people, fair trade, Third World debt, free software, culture, agricultural subsidies, financial sector reforms, and many, many more. At the WSF 2004, more than 1,200 workshops and seminars and conferences were devoted to these subjects.

Columns by global personalities published in the WSF 2004 daily newspaper Terra Viva underscored the shifting tide. Mario Soares, president of Portugal from 1986-1996, wrote: “Neoliberalism, the economic dogma that has been the rage for the last few years, is showing signs of exhaustion. Simply put, it has failed to solve the world’s problems.” Indian author and international campaigner for women and the environment Vandana Shiva, who received the Right Livelihood Award (Alternative Nobel Prize) in 1993, said: “When Halliburton and Bechtel emerge as the real winners of the Iraq war, it becomes clear that war is globalisation by other means.”

Devinder Sharmas, an Indian food security expert, was quoted as saying, “The real clash of civilisations, as I see it, is the way a dairy cow in America, Europe, Canada, Japan, Australia and for that matter in the rest of the OECD countries are reared with showers, fans, lights and heating when all of these are luxuries for the majority of the farmers in the developing countries. These days, the cow has an electronic chip attached to it to decide how much protein it needs for automatic feeding. In other words, the cow is more food-secure than most farmers in this part of the world. It is ridiculous that a cow in Europe gets a subsidy of three dollars a day when most farmers in Asia survive on less than a dollar.”

Even World Bank President James Wolfensohn, admitted, “We can begin to solve the problems of imbalance only if we forge a new development path linking economic growth to social and environmental responsibility. Without enlarging the real opportunities available to all citizens, markets serve only the elites.”

The selection of India as the venue of the first WSF in Asia showed how important the civil society movement is to travel & tourism at large.

In terms of both inbound and outbound tourism, India has tremendous potential. It is a melting pot of castes, cultures, colours and creeds, the birthplace of Buddhism, Jainism, Hinduism and Sikhism as well as Mahatma Gandhi. A former colony of the British, and in the case of Goa, the Portuguese, it is a flourishing democracy, with a vibrant press, tremendous intellectual and artistic resources. A nuclear power, India is also gaining strength in the field of international relations, economic growth and information technology.

But the same assets of people-power and historic heritage which boost tourism are also its greatest liabilities, which hurt tourism and the country’s image. Politicians win elections by fanning the flames of communal conflict. Nearly 300 million people live below the poverty line. Bride-burning over dowry payments is still practised. The caste system continues to victimise the dalits (‘untouchables’) and the adivasis (indigenous people). Corruption is endemic.

Its relations with multinational companies, too, have been dicey; India is where the disgraced energy giant Enron once tried to gain a major foothold. Still alive are the memories of Bhopal where in December 1984, an explosion at the US chemical multinational Union Carbide set off a poisonous gas, killing thousands of people and animals. Union Carbide has since been taken over by Dow Chemical but many of the victims still feel justice has not been done.

Indeed, the Bhopal holocaust was avidly remembered as part of the anger directed at multinationals, a clear warning that they are being watched and will be held accountable. Two which took a grilling were Coca-Cola and Monsanto. A flyer for a panel discussion called “People’s Forum Against Coca-Cola” reported, “Communities in and around Coca-Cola’s bottling facilities (in India) are facing severe water shortages and contaminated groundwater.”

Another Indian NGO was more direct. Cola drinks contain harmful chemicals like phosphoric acid which weakens the bone structure and causes stomach acidity, it said. The solution? Try some natural Indian drinks like Kokam and Limbu Sharbat (lime juice) which are not only nourishing but also help small entrepreneurs and “give a fitting reply to the greedy multinationals.” MNC drink companies were banned at the Forum grounds, and a Coke truck that tried to roll up outside was chased away.

Monsanto, which owns over 90 % of genetically engineered (GE) crops planted worldwide, came under fire for pushing its seeds around the world, including soybean, corn, canola and cotton. One of its opponents is the Canadian research group Polaris Institute which compiled a detailed roundup of all the battles against Monsanto in Africa, Asia, Europe, Latin America and North America.

This two-pronged ‘name-and-shame’ and ‘expose-and-oppose’ policy is an intrinsic part of the anti-globalisation movement and its counter-revolutionary search for democratic, people-based alternatives. Having clearly matured beyond trashing of fast-food restaurant outlets, the WSF movement is being strengthened by the failure of the existing system to practise its own sanctimonious preachings about democracy, transparency and accountability. As more and more high-level people choose to blow the whistle, the Internet revolution is helping to spread the word. The WSF itself provides an opportunity to network, and smaller forums focussing on regions and specific issues are emerging so that more like-minded people can afford to attend and join the movement.

The travel & tourism industry will not be able to ignore the WSF movement for long. So far, none of the major industry captains have shown much interest, living up to their reputation that when it comes to global issues that question that their institutional agendas, they are johnny-come-lately followers rather than leaders. The fact that tourism watchdog groups participated in it for the first time will increase the pressure for accountability as they ask hard questions and step up their monitoring of corporate activities.

In reality, the WSF movement is a far superior mechanism for addressing many of the underlying issues impacting travel & tourism than either the WTTC agenda or the OMT-WTO’s “Liberalisation with a Human Face” initiative. After spending years establishing partnerships only with multinational companies in order help market destinations, enlightened industry leaders need to initiate a broad dialogue and establish a new kind of partnership with civil society movements and organisations which, in their own way, are keen to create a better world for future generations. After years of listening only to the WTTC and the WTO, it would be useful to hear from the NGOs more about how “Another World is Possible,” and what can be done to bring it about.



BANGKOK, January 26, 2004 — The Pacific Asia Travel Association (PATA) today welcomed a World Health Organization (WHO) assessment that bird flu at this stage poses no realistic health threat to travellers visiting Asian cities. There is no sign of the virus passing from human to human, the world health body said.

According to the WHO, H5N1 avian influenza (“bird flu”) can only be caught by direct contact with contaminated live poultry. Travellers are not at risk of catching bird flu by eating cooked chicken or eggs. The WHO says it has no plans to issue a travel advisory.

WHO spokesman, Mr. Peter Cordingley, told PATA: “The World Health Organization does not at this moment see bird flu as a serious public health threat.” “This is not an urban problem. It has only been detected in farms and wet market environments,” he said.

Mr. Cordingley confirmed that there was “no sign” that bird flu was changing its genetic structure and becoming transmittable between humans. He said there have been no known cases of health workers contracting bird flu from patients.

Travel companies across Asia report business as usual with record numbers of tourists travelling during the Lunar New Year period. PATA President and CEO, Mr. Peter de Jong said: “To date, there has been no discernible impact on travel bookings – nor should there be. We are keen to ensure that the travelling public gets the facts on this issue.”

The World Health Organization has detailed information about bird flu at http://www.who.int/en/. For further information about PATA contact communications@pata.th.com or visit www.pata.org.


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