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26 Dec, 2005

NGOs Warn of Downside of Liberalisation on Tourism, SMEs

Small and medium sized enterprises as well as independent hotels and tour operators in Thailand and other developing countries can expect to face more competitive pressure from global multinationals as a result of the World Trade Organization talks in Hong Kong last week.

While timelines for the removal of European agricultural subsidies are pushed back to 2013, the timelines for talks on services, which includes travel & tourism, are due to start in February 2006 with the final draft schedules of market liberalisation commitments set to be completed by 31 October 2006.

A statement issued by a group of travel & tourism NGOs warned:

“Within the GATS, thus far, developing countries have undertaken deep liberalising commitments in tourism with very few limitations. This is potentially dangerous and can exacerbate existing inequities in tourism, especially considering the lack of clarity in rules on domestic regulation, subsidies and government procurement.

“In the light of these realities, contrary to what the World Tourism Organization (now known as the UNWTO) believed, the GATS certainly will not further the cause of fair trade in tourism.”

The agreement also allows for the talks to be conducted in “plurilateral” mode, i.e, between groups of countries, effectively speeding up the process.

The only small victory that the developing countries managed to wrangle out is access to more “technical assistance” for their negotiating positions.

A phrase inserted into the agreed text says: “In addition, such (technical) assistance should be provided on, inter alia, compiling and analysing statistical data on trade in services, assessing interests in and gains from services trade, building regulatory capacity, particularly on those services sectors where liberalization is being undertaken by developing countries.”

A group of tourism NGOs kept a close watch on the talks. They included: the Ecumenical Coalition on Tourism (ECOT), Hong Kong; EQUATIONS, India; Tourism Concern, United Kingdom; Fair Trade in Tourism, South Africa; Association for Defence and Development of Kuelap, Peru; and Hong Kong Coalition on Tourism.

They said they were there “to protest against the current imbalanced/unfair world trade regime, specifically in lieu of its adverse impacts of sustainability and community rights in tourism locations.”

In a subsequent statement, they urged the global travel industry to look beyond short-term interests and thoroughly debate the various issues from both long-term and holistic perspectives.

A statement issued by the NGOs said: “Within the GATS, tourism is one of the most liberalized but least debated sectors. It also has strong linkages with other service sectors like transportation, environmental services like water and waste management, distribution, construction and communication. The need for intensifying the global debate on impacts of liberalisation policies on tourism was expressed.”

The groups “affirmed strengthening opposition to the GATS – an investment agreement designed to promote the aggressive interests of transnational tourism industry seeking right of establishment in developing countries. Speakers stressed that the GATS is a fundamentally undemocratic agreement that negates the core principle of strengthening community rights and benefits from tourism.”

Speakers at a seminar highlighted the need “to work with national governments in stressing how the GATS severely inhibits the capacity of national and sub-national governments to regulate tourism activities. This is a serious issue, particularly in the light of existing inequities and violations in tourism.”

They also highlighted the need to oppose ongoing efforts by certain governments (especially the European Union) in altering the structure of the GATS to incorporate mandatory benchmarking and plurilateral negotiations to speed-up the services liberalisation process.

They noted that “even bilateral and regional Free Trade Agreements (FTAs) being negotiated by the US and EU with developing countries go beyond the GATS in seeking free trade in tourism and can result in more severe long-term impacts.

“Considering that developing country governments are under severe pressure from their developed counterparts to open up tourism under the GATS, speakers urged intensification of work with Northern governments to stop requesting the unfair and unrestricted opening up of tourism economies of the South.

“Speakers pointed towards pressuring national governments to undertake a comprehensive assessment of impacts of domestic and international economic liberalisation policies on tourism.

“Research efforts need to be strengthened in developing strong regional and national-level case studies illustrating the impossibility of economically, socially and environmentally sustainable tourism in the context of the GATS and FTAs.”

The Madrid-based World Tourism Organisation (now referred to as the UNWTO) participated with fair-trade tourism activists in a symposium designed to find ways to support small and medium sized enterprises, which will be most affected by aggressive expansion by the MNCs.

However, the activists said they saw only talk, and no evidence of any meaningful action plan or project to do so.

They said they now plan to expand the existing tourism network to reach out to new groups (grassroots organizations, communities and labeling/certifying networks) and boost collaboration with key trade groups.

Noting the need to intensify national level campaign, lobbying and advocacy on tourism in the WTO, they also welcomed involvement in the tourism debate by other related networks and interested parties.

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