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3 Nov, 2008

India Blocks Bid To Grade Destinations

India has blocked a bid by the UN World Tourism Organisation to “evaluate” destinations, an effort which was designed overtly to upgrade product development but which critics saw as being yet another thinly-disguised “beauty contest.”

Indian Minister of Tourism and Culture, Mrs. Ambika Soni took up the matter in her capacity as chairperson of the 84th Session of the Executive Council of UNWTO in Madrid on 14-15 October 2008. According to the Indian tourism ministry, one of the main agenda items was about “cooperation” between the UNWTO and the World Centre of Excellence for Destinations (CED).

Based in Montreal, Canada, the CED has been set up by the UNWTO in partnership with the Canadian federal government, the Quebec provincial government, and a group of affiliate members, including the University of Quebec and George Washington University.

According to the Indian ministry, the UNWTO Executive Council “agreed to India’s proposal of not allowing certification, grading or ranking of tourist destinations by CED with which UNWTO had entered into a MoU.

“India expressed its concerns about CED assuming the role of a certification agency which would lead to standardising of cultures, heritage and biodiversity of nations and could seriously undermine the concept of diversity that drives tourism across the world.

“India was strongly supported in its stand by the members of the Working Group set up by UNWTO to examine the by-laws and procedures for running the CED,” the announcement said.

It did not specifically identify the countries which backed India, but said other members of the working group are Costa Rica, Brazil, France, Iran, Ghana and Spain.

“CED will now only extend technical assistance to destinations in developing countries to achieve excellence and attract more tourists. In addition, developing countries could ask UNWTO’s support for securing financial and technical assistance.”

India’s move reflects growing concerns among developing countries that they are becoming excessively subjected to standards, laws, regulations and procedures emanating in the developed countries, in areas such as consumer protection, safety and security (including in the aviation sector), the environment, etc.

The UNWTO-CED scheme was discussed at the fourth Conference on Destination Management and Marketing, organised by the UNWTO in Bordeaux last September.

Francesco Frangialli, Secretary-General of the UNWTO said the CED was part of “the mission of the UNWTO to both promote the good governance of destinations, and also, through the latter, foster higher quality in the products they offer.”

However, he spoke only briefly about one of the key areas of contention — how the initiative would be financed.

“The CED must demonstrate that, through the sale of services to enable the destinations evaluated to advance along the path of quality, it can achieve financial independence and even become profitable within a period of three years, at which time contributions from the Canadian public sector will be ending.

“The UNWTO does not want, generally speaking, to finance the CED — it is up to the destinations who benefit from it to do so — but starting in 2010, it should include in its budget the necessary allocations to make it possible for the destinations of the poorest countries, if they wish, to participate in the system without running into the obstacle of the cost of the evaluation.

“Saint-Tropez will pay to have itself evaluated; Saint-Louis in Senegal will not!” Mr. Frangialli said.

Industry executives said India’s objection is really designed to thwart the creation of yet another ISO-style scheme that will become a bureaucratic nightmare and lead to millions of dollars in “evaluation costs” flowing out of the developing countries, especially those with dozens of tourist destinations.

The CED is an evolution of discussions at the UNWTO’s 2007 General Assembly which, according to the UNWTO, had “expressed its interest in the establishment of a System for Measuring the Excellence of Destinations (SMED).”

According to Mr. Frangialli, the idea is designed “to put into place a guaranteed evaluation (as opposed to a certification or a label), that is quantifiable (in 11 precisely defined fields), that is based on objective criteria, and that is applied to a circumscribed and homogenous territory.”

He said the SMED would be used “as a diagnostic tool providing a tourism destination’s decision-makers and tourism operators with the most faithful and comprehensive possible snapshot of the situation of a tourism destination at a given point in time.”

It will show the strengths and weaknesses of the destination evaluated, thus facilitating steps for the improvement of its management; and facilitate cooperation amongst the various actors together and mobilizing the various operators.

It will also help “establish the market positioning and branding of the destination”, allow a comparative analysis with others and become a “communication tool vis-à-vis the destination’s clientele.”

However, Mr. Frangialli admitted that its credibility would depend on how it is validated. “The SMED must be transparent in order to inspire confidence, and the findings of the evaluation must be indisputable.”

He acknowledged that countries remain divided on the initiative because “they do not yet understand (it) very well. Educational efforts are necessary in order to make its benefits known to all.”

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