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10 Sep, 2011

Imtiaz Muqbil’s TEDx Talk: How the World Can Attain “Peace Through Tourism”


Sawasdee khrap, Namaskar, Sat Sri Kal and Salaamualaikum

Thank you for inviting me here today. The TEDx theme requires speakers to present ideas worth spreading. So in the interests of meeting my 18 minute time limit, let me just get stuck into it.

My topic today is “Peace Through Tourism”. In my website introduction to the talk, I said that true globalisation and peace will only come when people have the right and the ability to move across frontiers without visas, security hassles, border control formalities, etc. Like most provocative viewpoints, this may sound both controversial and ludicrous. But let me explain why I believe this will happen.

Let’s start with the broader issue of peace and conflict.

Human survival depends on four elements: land, air, light and water. Of these four elements, two, light and air, are intangible, cannot be divided or owned and cost nothing. The other two, land and water, are tangible and are divided into boundaries, properties and territories controlled and owned to some extent or the other by countries and mega-corporations.

No human progress can take place without the prevalence of peace. Yet history shows that the vast majority of global conflict has been over ownership and control of these boundaries, properties and territories, and the natural resources within them. The resulting clashes have become what the Lord Buddha called the source of suffering.

For this suffering to be reduced, if not eliminated entirely, fundamental changes need to be made in the ownership and control of land, water and resources. An entirely different form of globalisation is required, with a different set of administrative structures that focus on the global good. The world’s increasingly finite resources, already under pressure from population growth, need to be owned and divided under a more fair, just, balanced and equitable arrangement.

The world’s real wealth lies in its natural resources, such as forests and minerals, which are themselves the product of the unique chemistry of land, air, light and water. Money is just a unit of exchange that derives from exploiting, buying and selling these resources. The more an individual, a country or a corporation owns and controls these resources, the “richer” he or she is considered to be.

The endless cycle of conflict for control of these resources leads to an endless cycle of suffering. The Lord Buddha foresaw this 25 centuries ago. The pursuit of power and wealth spawns more conflict because human greed is insatiable. At the same time, the state of the world today is unsustainable – it is already running out of oil. What happens when it starts running out of fresh water?

If most of today’s wars are being fought for the control of oil, the next generation of wars will be fought over water.

This permanent state of impermanence is also part of the Buddhist cycle of life. Each time the cycle turns, it requires a wholesale adjustment of power structures.  Those who own and control global resources, and dominate the power structures, always put up a fight to maintain them. Today, another monumental shift in power structure is under way — the rise of Asia, the forces of democratisation in the Arab and Islamic worlds and the onset of ageing societies in the West. More change will come when Africa begins to rise.

So we’ve got plenty more conflict and suffering to come.

That is the global big-picture context of my key message — the role of peace through tourism and the freedom to travel as a contributor to peace.

As this present-day global shift runs its course, some barriers are already falling. Free trade agreements, for example, are all about the free movement of capital, products and services. I believe FTAs are good. However, they cannot achieve their full potential unless accompanied by the ability of people to also move freely around the world, without visas, work permits, etc. I believe that will be next. As the travel, tourism and transportation business sectors play the most critical role in the movement of peoples, they will be both major contributors to the global shift, as well as major beneficiaries.

A look at the history of travel, tourism and transportation through the ages clearly shows why the cycle is nearly at the end of its current rotation, and ready to go back to the future.

Human history is all about the mass movement of peoples from one part of the world to another. In the old days, this movement was free of barriers. People have travelled for centuries for exploration, conquest, pilgrimage or commerce. Great religions have spread. Empires have risen and fallen. Colonisation has been all about the pursuit of riches and treasures. Some movements have been forced – such as people fleeing persecution, or for slavery to work the colonial sugar, cotton and tobacco plantations.

Globalisation has been under way for centuries. Except that the pace was slower than it is today. People traded, learned from each other, told stories, made love, inter-married, etc., etc. They did not need passports or visas. All these movements led to mass shifts of culture and ideas – reflected today in magnificent monuments, mausoleums, museums – what the travel & tourism industry calls culture and heritage.

When oil was discovered and the industrial revolution dawned, the transport sector boomed. Former caravan trails were replaced by highways and railways. Ships and aircraft became bigger and better. Old watering holes turned into inns and hotels. Then came the need to make bookings. So travel agents were born. Economies grew as products, services and capital began to cross borders.

Today, tourism has become a huge business – with thousands of global hotels, airlines, tour companies, huge aircraft, cruise ships and convention centres catering to more than two billion international and domestic tourists a year. Online booking technology and iPads are making travel even easier. People even live in one country and work in another. They travel for visiting friends and relatives, meditation, shopping, nightlife, cooking classes, sports, migration, medical treatment, u name it. Travel has been connecting people long before mobile phones.  

Has this made the world a better, more peaceful place?

To some extent yes, but certainly not to the full extent.

Most people return home from their trips having learned something new, appreciated the local culture, met new people, gained some knowledge or wisdom.  They bring the best back to their own countries. There is no culture in the world that has not benefitted in some shape or form by a good idea imported from elsewhere. Look at the positive changes in Thailand after King Chulalongkorn the Great visited Europe. Look what happened after the former Prince Siddhartha himself ventured outside the palace walls. The famous Indian Independence movement leader Mahatma Gandhi had a nasty racist experience in South Africa when it was still under the former system of apartheid and returned to India to start a non-violent peoples’ movement that ended with the ousting of British colonialism.

Which brings me to the message on this slide — The masses do not want to fight if the leaders do not. I photographed this sign many years ago in the main commuter railway terminal of Mumbai, my birthplace. It is intended to remind the people of India to elect leaders who do not make people fight each other. However, ask yourself, what is it doing in the middle of a train station? Would it help to have a similar sign in transportation terminals worldwide?

Here is one of Mahatma Gandhi’s most famous quotes: “There is enough in the world for everyone’s need but not for everyone’s greed.” It’s 100% true. There are enough global resources – land, air, water and light – for everyone’s need but not for everyone’s greed. But most wars are fought over resources, and the decisions are made by political, business or military leaders who  see some form of personal gain in terms of power, prestige, influence and money. No-one should be allowed to profit by promoting someone else’s death, misery and suffering.

Whenever conflicts erupt, travel becomes the second casualty — when the Thai-Cambodia clash took place, the borders were the first to shut. When relations between India and Pakistan go down, the visa restrictions go up. In this so-called war on terror, the Islamic world is facing the most artificial barriers and blockades to travel.

But when the artificial walls dividing the world come down, travel flourishes and decision-makers have one less reason to pit people off against each other. Peace prevails.

For that to make further progress, both countries and mega-corporations will need to undergo some fundamental changes in the way they are run. Today, they are built entirely around the pursuit of power, money and influence – all characteristics that the Lord Buddha flagged as being the root causes of suffering. In the next 30 to 40 years, I believe, both will cease to exist in their present form. The artificial borders and walls created to own and control the land, water and resources will fall. I believe more local systems will emerge, built around neighbourhoods and communities and brilliant concepts such as HM the King’s sufficiency economy and Bhutan’s gross national happiness. At the same time, new more equitable ways will emerge to make, buy and sell products, perhaps through cooperatives rather than mega-corporations.

The next generation of more fair, balanced, just, equitable systems to share global resources and reap the returns will be driven by the move to restore the world’s yin and yang, the natural system of balance. For centuries, the world has tried various “isms” (socialism, capitalism, communism) and the “tions” (liberalisation, deregulation, privatisation). None succeeded; they just replaced one set of problems with another.

In this next stage of the continued search for a global good, the travel and tourism industry can make the biggest contribution.

What is travel & tourism all about? What are its primary assets? Music, dance, arts, cuisine, crafts, nature, culture, spirituality, meditation — all the good things of life. A global good can only emerge if it allows humanity opportunities to experience and share the good things of life, the things that make people feel good, things that divert the human mind from the state of suffering and help attain a small measure the most important Buddhist objective, enlightenment.

At the same time, man-made and natural disasters such as floods, earthquakes, nuclear disasters, disease, pandemics are occurring daily. These “problems without passports” have no respect for man-made borders. When they strike, people should be free to fly in to help, without man-made impediments like passports and visas.

Global peace and prosperity can be attained by allowing people to move freely across frontiers. Birds, fish and animals can do so. But humans cannot – even though we are all part of the same global ecosystem. If birds, fish and animals are not confined by artificial borders, why should human beings?

Ladies and gentlemen,

There have been four stages of travel since it became commercialised.

  • The first was visual, people were driven by a curiosity to see famous sights such as the Pyramids or the Niagara Falls;
  • The second was recreational – when the one-month annual holiday became legally required in the workplace, people travelled to take a break from work;
  • The third was physical (people became concerned about their fitness, leading to gyms and sports clubs in hotels);
  • The present fourth stage is mental (now every hotel has to have a spa to refresh and rejuvenate and relax).

Coming up next is the fifth and final spiritual stage (when the most important form of travel of all, a pilgrimage, will become the world’s most popular movement).

If any of you have not yet been on a pilgrimage to the holy sites of your respective religions, I strongly urge you to do so. There is nothing quite like it to change your life.

So let me conclude, ladies and gentlemen, with the following summary:

Because humanity has free access to light and air, people do not fight over them, because they cannot. If humanity can similarly return to the days when it had free movement across land and water, accompanied by fairer, more balanced systems of ownership and distribution, it will go a long, long way towards ending the state of suffering and achieving global peace and enlightenment.

Hope I have provided you with some ideas worth spreading. I had a few more, but I think that’s all I can squeeze into 18 minutes.

With many thanks for inviting me here today.