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21 Apr, 2008

WTTC Summit Seeks “New Maturity” In Travel Industry

When the chieftains of some of the world’s largest travel & tourism companies meet for their annual summit in Dubai today (April 21-22), their agenda will reflect both the new realities of the industry as well as the mistakes the industry continues to make in addressing those realities.

The World Travel & Tourism Council (WTTC), an exclusive club of CEOs of industry multinationals, has chosen “World Citizens” as the title and theme of its annual summit.

This theme, according to the summit’s rationale, reflects the fact that in a changing world, travel and tourism itself has to take increasing account of its own responsibilities as an influential world citizen and attain a “new maturity” in seeking to live up to those responsibilities.

“Increasingly in today’s world, influences from economic, political, environmental and social changes now routinely interact at an international level, and determine the context in which everyone has to operate. A mature international sector such as Travel & Tourism has to take this seriously in its own planning and policy development,” says one of the summit agenda items.

This terminology is being so forcefully used for the first time in a WTTC summit, an organisation that was founded to promote travel & tourism as a vehicle for job-creation and economic growth as well as to lobby for reduction of impediments to investments and the travel process itself.

After spending the first few summits focussed only on promoting that agenda, the WTTC is placing that agenda in a wider context.

On the one hand, the summit will seek to “examine possible responses from travel & tourism to the opportunities of economic growth, international trade, new tourism markets, greater leisure, wider education, longer lifespans, inter-culturalism, and technologies in travel and communications.”

On the other hand, it will seek to “address the pressures from climate change, population growth, wider inequalities, cultural tensions, political instability, financial market volatility, increased competition for land, water, food and energy.”

Also on the agenda are the changes resulting from the rise of China, Russia, the Middle East and India, from the speed of scientific advance and the pervasiveness of information technology, and from the increasingly dominant role of the news and entertainment media.

Another topic, focussing on “tough questions (which) are getting tougher”, asks what is the “right” thing to do and how to achieve vital balances particularly between the growth in travel & tourism, the protection of the environment and “how to achieve higher quality at a cost which is accessible to customers.”

“Government, industry and the individual all now have to examine where they sit on this balance and what each of them can do. How can we get the right strategy, the right structure and the right people?”

While these critical issues are being correctly identified, the people being called upon to address them are hardly representative of the industry at large.

Of the roughly 30 heavyweight speakers on the list, there is only one Chinese, two Africans and one ethnic Indian. There are a number of executives from the UAE, in deference to the host venue, and one Saudi, but the rest are all Europeans and Americans.

Although one of the summit objectives is to “provoke long-term thinking about the future of travel & tourism,” the problem remains that the search for solutions will remain imbalanced and lopsided if it assumes that only industry CEOs have the answer, and that too mainly from geographical regions that represent a minority of global populations.

In many ways, this top-down approach has been part of the problem over the years, and yet the travel & tourism industry continues to believe that it is the best way forward.

“The industry is smart – and it’s getting smarter,” says the preamble to one summit session. “Thanks to the inexhaustible initiative and imagination of the sector, it is constantly coming up with new answers.”

Geoffrey JW Kent, Chairman, and Chairman & CEO, Abercrombie & Kent, says the selection of “World Citizens” as the theme is “no accident or rhetoric.”

“As an industry, we play a major role in developing a sense among our customers of being world citizens. But we, too, as business leaders, have a special responsibility – as do the politicians – to ensure that we are fully aware of the responsibilities that fall upon us in acting as world citizens.

“The size and scope of Travel & Tourism puts it in a genuinely inluential position in world affairs. We are here to reflect on how we can use that influence not just for our own benefit, but for the benefit of the entire world.”

Jean-Claude Baumgarten, President & CEO, WTTC, foresees “a truly historic encounter” that will “celebrate travel & tourism as a manifestation of human freedom and initiative – and its contributions to economic and social freedom and to peace and international understanding.”

Maybe. But only if the industry learns to walk the talk.

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