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4 Mar, 2011

ITB 2011 Curtain-Raiser 2: The Global Geopolitical Revolution

The second of a two-part report on the two technological and geopolitical revolutions set to dominate the agenda at the ITB Berlin between March 9-13. This part focusses on the geopolitical revolution.

On March 9, the ITB Berlin will break new ground in the annals of travel & tourism with a public discussion on the impact of the Middle East crisis on the global tourism industry. Classified as a “Hot Topic” on the programme of the ITB Convention, the panel will be addressed by Hebatallah Ismail Hafez, Middle East Expert, Deutsche Welle, Dr. Taleb Rifai, Secretary-General, World Tourism Organization (UNWTO) and Samih Sawiris, Chairman & CEO, Orascom Development.

To be moderated by Prof. Dr. Gudrun Krämer, Director of the Berlin Graduate School, Muslim Cultures and Societies, the panel’s subject title is appropriately framed as a question: “Middle East Crisis – Flash in the Pan or Permanent Crisis for Tourism?” Asserting that “Political unrest in the Middle East is threatening recovery of tourism after the financial crisis,” the preamble sets the agenda for the discussion thus: “How big is the risk that tourism in the region will come to a standstill? Or does the emerging democratic process provide new opportunities for tourism?”

The answers to those questions may actually come from another event. The partner country for this year’s ITB is Poland. Amongst the Polish delegation at the ITB opening ceremony will be Lech Walesa, the former Polish president and winner of the 1983 Nobel Peace Prize. Many of today’s generation in the travel & tourism industry are probably too young to remember, but Lech Walesa is the former leader of the “Solidarity” trade union at the Gdansk shipyard, where a series of strikes in the late 1970s and early 1980s forced regime change in Poland and triggered a chain of pro-democracy movements in other Iron Curtain countries, leading to the collapse of the Berlin Wall and the Soviet Empire, and the end of the Cold War. Today, similar revolutions will either unfold across the Arab and Islamic worlds and possibly beyond, or strong efforts will be made to suppress them. Either way, the impact on global peace, stability and security and, by extension, travel & tourism, will be substantial.

The timing is perfect for these issues to be aired at the ITB Berlin, the first ITB of the second decade of the 21st century. As the first decade was dominated by discussions of the impact on travel tourism of pandemics, natural disasters, financial and crises, and climate change, it is long overdue for the geopolitics of regime change to be factored into the mainstream agenda. Indeed, global geopolitics, as manifested by one of its primary outcomes, the so-called “war on terror”, has impacted on travel & tourism all through the first decade. The industry has been remiss in ignoring it, except in terms of its impact on “safety and security.” Now, that taboo is set to be well & truly broken.

Although likely to be controversial, a rationale and fact-based discussion will be healthy for the industry as a whole. The path to health and wellness, as any practitioner of this rapidly growing industry sector knows, lies in asking the right questions, correctly diagnosing the symptoms in order to identify the cause, and then prescribing the correct solution. Recovery can often be a painful process, require behavioural changes, a lot of patience and, quite often, a second opinion. But nothing can be achieved by living in denial, or without recognising that many ailments are self-inflicted. Sweeping issues under the carpet is suicidal.

The questions awaiting the panel at the ITB Convention are only a fraction of the many more that need to be asked. Hence, this essay will do just that. As a born-and-brought-up Asian, a Muslim of Indian origin, now living in Bangkok, I feel myself to be well-placed to pose them. Professionally, it is my competitive advantage as a journalist to have covered some of the most tumultuous events in recent history in both the Middle East and Southeast Asia. Each of those events leaves a legacy of lessons and mistakes that need to be avoided if history is not to repeat itself.

One lesson that stands out in this new world order is that it is not possible to fool all the people all the time. Hence, accountability is set to become a two-way street. A dominant feature of this resurgence of the Arab/Islamic worlds is the increasing assertiveness of its opinion-shapers and zero tolerance for attempts to insult our intelligence. Just two examples can be cited:

<> On February 18, the United States vetoed a U.N. Security Council resolution condemning all Israeli settlements established in occupied Palestinian territory since 1967 as illegal, saying that while it agreed that the settlements are illegitimate the resolution harmed chances for peace talks. As an example of the outrage that followed, and the subsequent impact on the image of the U.S. in the Arab/Islamic worlds, I invite readers to the following commentary in Arab News.

<> On 23 February, the Council on American-Islamic Relations of the Greater Los Angeles Area, the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California, and the law firm Hadsell Stormer Keeny Richardson & Renick LLP announced that they have filed a federal class action lawsuit against the FBI for infiltrating mainstream mosques in Southern California and targeting Muslim Americans for surveillance solely because of their religion. In its deposition, it said, “For over 14 months between 2006 and 2007, FBI agents planted an informant in Orange County mosques who posed as a convert to Islam and through whom the FBI collected names, telephone numbers, e-mails, and other information on hundreds of California Muslims.”

At the ITB Convention, diplomatic niceties may require the panellists to mince their words. But Travel Impact Newswire faces no such inhibition. Here are a range of questions on issues that will influence the geopolitics of the new world order, including events in the Middle East. Their impact on travel & tourism is obvious.

1.         How much money is being consumed by the world’s militaries on a daily basis? How can a world so dominated by the merchants of death ever be able to live in peace?

2.         The first decade of the 21st century was plagued by numerous “sicknesses”. At least two major ones were man-made: climate change and the financial crisis. Who was primarily responsible for both? Who should be held accountable? Are the prescribed solutions really going to work?

3.         What results have been achieved by the “war on terror?” How much has it cost the world in terms of lives lost, as well as time, money and effort? How has it impacted travel & tourism? Where is the end-game? Who is to be held accountable for the failure?

4.         When will the current generation muster the courage to accept responsibility for the shameful legacy of environmental and economic debt, geopolitical mayhem and financial crises it is set to leave behind for the future generation to inherit and clean up? When will the future generation start demanding such accountability from the current generation?

5.         What has the West learnt from its days of colonisation? The French, Dutch, British, Spaniards, Portuguese and others at some stage or another of their histories colonised large swathes of land mass in Africa, Asia and Latin America? All those empires faded and receded. What lessons did the former colonisers learn from those eras?

6.         As no empires last forever, what is the future of the United States? What will be implications of its slow but steady decline in the power, prestige, influence? Will it accept this ageing process gracefully? In many economic and political forums, there is widespread concern about the country’s ability to sustain such a large military expenditure, trade and budget deficits. When will the American street start asking serious questions about what it is getting in return for its tax dollars, and rise up in the same way as the Arab street?

7.         Is the United States the same country it once was? Whatever happened to the country of the Vietnam and Watergate eras when a robust media and the Woodstock generation could end wars and bring down lying presidents? How much damage has been done by the replacement of yesterday’s crusading journalists with today’s embedded journalists, who are in bed with the U.S. government, lobbyists, the defence establishment and private companies?

8.         Does the West seriously think it can dominate and control the aspirations of 1.2 billion Muslims with all their geographical, cultural, demographic, political and economic diversity?

9.         Will the debate to come be approached from a “west is best” or “might is right” attitude? Or will it be a dialogue between equals based on mutual respect?

10.   No discussion about the changing geopolitics of the Middle East and future relations between Arab/Islamic worlds and West can avoid the issue of the Israeli occupation of Palestine. What can the travel & tourism industry do to help provide statehood and independence and freedom of movement for the people of Palestine, and uphold the right of all people to visit Palestine as an independent state, not as an occupied territory of Israel?

11.   Are Western values what they used to be? Why are right-wing parties and extremist movements with xenophobic agendas on the rise in the West? If Western societies are becoming less tolerant, less democratic and less passionate about their long-cherished love for justice and human rights, then can it be denied that the fanatics of all ilks are really winning?

12.   If the world is seeing the rise of Brazil, India, Russia and China, and now the Arab/Islamic worlds, why are more forums not devoted to hearing the views of the people of these countries, especially contrarian views that challenge the conventional wisdoms coming from the capitals of the West? Why do most international conferences and events continue to be dominated by largely Western companies and institutions?

13.   How can the Arab and Islamic-majority countries’ autocrats, royal families and leaders start creating truly representative forums that will unleash the creativity of their peoples, especially the young? How can the Arab/Islamic worlds avoid being continuously divided and ruled, or becoming victim of a new form of colonialism? How can it confront the blatant racial profiling and targetting of Muslims in the West?

14.   What is being done to ensure transparency, accountability at a global level?  Just like the 1997 Asian financial crisis showed, the recent global financial crisis was the result of cronyism between speculators, hedge fund operators, private equity funds, agenda-driven think tanks and their connections to corrupt Western politicians and government officials. As one of the Oscar Academy Award winners told the world last week, not a single one of these crooks has been sent to jail.

15.   Are multinational companies becoming much too powerful and unaccountable? What can be done to ensure more transparency, accountability and checks and balances in their operations?

16.   Is the existing world order really democratic? Or are international forums and institutions much too heavily dominated by the rich and powerful?

17.   What checks and balances are in place to monitor the activities of intelligence and security agencies which often act as laws unto themselves?

18.   Does the world need to seek a new development model? Does it need to rethink the way it does business in order to create a fair, balanced and just system? How can the travel & tourism industry contribute to this?

19.   Does the travel & tourism industry need to adopt a bottoms-up approach, and listen more to the views and concerns of the people at the grassroots of society and communities? Why hasn’t it done so so far?

20.   And the mother-lode questions: Why has not a single western leader been held accountable for the war in Iraq and the lies told to the world about the non-existent weapons of mass destruction? And why, inspite of billions spent on the best intelligence money can buy, is Osama bin Laden still on the run 10 years after the 9/11 attacks?


These are difficult and challenging questions on the future of global geopolitical landscape. Yes, this process of flux will have a deep and lasting impact on travel & tourism. As an industry of peace, devoted to respecting cultures and building friendships, travel & tourism can be a part of the solution. The ITB Berlin 2011 has taken a bold and courageous step forward by becoming the first to initiate a long overdue discussion.

If the global situation today is not what global leaders would have wanted to see when planning the future 10 years ago, then it is imperative for everyone to assess what went wrong, whether the prescribed solutions are working and if not, whether the medical procedure needs to be changed or a new medical team consulted, or both. Clearly, business as usual is not an option.

One thing for sure, the Arab/Muslim street is on the rise. And accountability will prove to be a two-way street.

Further reading: Growing anti-Muslim hatred in the U.S. Click here.

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