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31 Oct, 2007

Beware the “Other Global Warming”

Presentation by Imtiaz Muqbil, Executive Editor, Travel Impact Newswire at the International Conference on Tourism, Religions and Dialogue of Cultures, in Córdoba, Spain, 31 October 2007


Buenos Dias, Good Morning, Namaskar, Shalom, Sawasdee Khrap and As-Salaam O Alaikum.

Many thanks to Dr Taleb Rifai and UNWTO for inviting me here today. I’m proud to be the only Asian east of Pakistan amongst the entire distinguished lineup of speakers.

I like to think that I bring to this forum a unique confluence of cultures.  I am a Muslim born in India, a country also known as Hindustan or the Land of the Hindus. I gained most of my education in a Christian missionary school and I now live in Thailand, in the midst of what is known as the Greater Mekong Subregion, where the dominant religion is Buddhism. To have been enriched by the wisdom and enlightenment of the Prophet Muhammad PBUH, Jesus Christ PBUH, the Lord Buddha and Mahatma Gandhi, is a unique privilege.

The benevolent leadership of the King of Thailand, the world’s longest reigning monarch, is also significant. He has been on the throne for 60 years and has not left the country for the last 40 years because he believes that his people at home need him more than those abroad. It is called selflessness, a rare trait in contemporary leadership.

Having covered the Asia-Pacific travel & tourism industry for 28 years, it is clear that travel trends closely follow changing patterns of global lifestyles. This conference is a reflection of that evolution. Although humanity has always been “on the move” for conquest, exploration, curiosity, spreading of the faith, and many other reasons as outlined by Dr Rifai yesterday, the age of commercial tourism began as a visual exercise. The first package tours launched by Thomas Cook in the late 19th century were mainly designed to satisfy the curiosity of people who had heard of the great monuments and icons of their time, but wanted to see them for themselves. Then came the post-World War II era when travel became recreational with the institutionalisation of the holiday break. Then it became physical and we saw the advent of the fitness centers and gymnasiums.  It is now in its mental stage, and spas and meditation centers are in vogue.  The fifth and possibly final cycle, spiritual, is now gaining ground.

Essentially, with this conference, a whole new era of tourism has begun.

There is another reason why religious tourism is booming – prayer in its purest form is a search for safety and sanctuary from the unpredictable vagaries of life, such as disease, fires, floods, financial or political crises. As life spins out of control, people invariably seek help or protection — which is why insurance companies remain in business. Many turn to government leaders. But as many of these leaders at the global level are losing the faith, trust and confidence entrusted in them, their people are turning as a last resort to whatever greater power or force they believe in order to save them from the next looming peril.

As turmoil and crises grow, so too will religious tourism, which makes the sustainability of religious sites even more important. Many of our monuments and national parks are already being over-run by what one UNESCO official called “termite tourism”. It is an issue that needs to be addressed. So in the spirit of building bridges and introducing actionable ideas, let me venture one thought.

You heard yesterday and this morning that perhaps the most visited religious sites in the world are in the Islamic holy spots in Saudi Arabia. Over the years, Saudi Arabia has acquired a level of unparalleled perfection in managing these sites that it should now share with the rest of the world. One area of religious tourism and pilgrimage that needs such help is the Buddhist circuit, comprising of the Buddhist holy spots in India, Nepal, Sri Lanka, Bhutan and Bangladesh. The flow of visitors by Buddhists from all over the world is increasing steadily, and site management is becoming a key issue. For Saudi Arabia to share its expertise in facilitation, security, transport, waste management, logistics, food and water supplies, etc, would be a tremendous gesture of goodwill, going a long way towards building bridges and alliances between civilisations and helping to promote harmony, regardless of caste, colour or creed.

I know the idea will certainly encounter opposition from some quarters, not for technical or practical reasons but rather for religious and dogmatic reasons. But that is precisely why our presence here is so important. The need to rise above insularity in identifying, sharing and helping each other solve common problems is becoming as important a moral imperative as the need to start addressing global warming, no matter what role we play. Indeed, the real reason we are here is to address the “other global warming” – the rising geopolitical temperatures between peoples, societies, communities and countries. This geopolitical “global warming” is essentially caused by two groups of people: A tiny minority of unscrupulous politicians who promote divide and rule for parochial gain. And an equally tiny minority of fanatics who believe uncompromisingly that their way is the only way. Both these groups exist in all religions. They fall into what I call the live and let die camp. We, by contrast, are in the live and let live camp. I like to think that we are in the majority.  To rise above divisiveness and fanaticism should be part of our calling.

As this conference is one of the first of its kind, it came as no surprise to see the question of “what next” being raised yesterday. Over time, we will have plenty of research, data and analysis. Mr Zaragoza noted yesterday that there are too many reports but not much action. But as a new era has dawned, three key messages may help give us a sense of direction.

First, we need a good branding. Does the phrase “religious tourism” really sound appropriate? See what happened with “medical tourism” which now likes to be known as “health and wellness tourism”? During our discussions, the phrase “bridge-building” has been heard frequently. We have indulged in some heavy duty soul-searching. We are not selling just tourism, but expeditions/experiences/journeys/sojourns. Perhaps we need a branding that is a little more meaningful and reflective of the values we hold dear.

masses do not fight pix

Secondly, and this brings me to the picture on the screen, we need a strong, single message. This brilliant adage is a daily reminder to the teeming millions who use one of the busiest commuter train stations in Bombay, my city of birth (now known as Mumbai). India is the land of Mahatma Gandhi but it is also a country of major communal problems created by live-and-let-die politicians and fanatics. If you agree with its message, please use it and quote it repeatedly in media interviews and policy statements. Over time, it will define our cause and give us greater sense of unity and purpose, sending a clear message to our divisive politicians and fanatics that the millions of people who work in travel & tourism disagree with them.

Finally, let’s have a conference on promoting tourism through humour. Nothing builds peace and friendship like laughter, the ability to both laugh amongst ourselves and at ourselves. The religion business takes itself much, much too seriously. At our next conference – for which I would like to propose Amazing Thailand or Malaysia Truly Asia as the venue — let’s bring in some of the funniest people we can find in the field of religious humour, and let them have a go, in good taste of course. Even we Muslims are learning to laugh at ourselves these days, as evidenced by the success of Canadian sitcoms like Little Mosque on the Prairie.

Ladies and gentlemen, the deepest sense of respect anyone can show towards fellow participants and delegates at any conference is to respect their time. I can rightly claim to have shown you all this respect by sticking to my time limit.

Thank you very much.