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14 Nov, 2011

Three Travel Editors Unite In Opposing Attack On Iran

By Imtiaz Muqbil, John Bell, Don Ross

Imtiaz Muqbil is Executive Editor of Travel Impact Newswire, John Bell is a London-based travel editor/broadcaster/director and former chairman of the British Guild of Travel Writers, Don Ross is the Bangkok-based Editor of Travel Trade Report.

LONDON/BANGKOK – ‘The whole world in one room’ comments an interviewee in the closing video of the World Travel Market that ended in London on Nov 10. But was this the real world of travel or merely the flat screen, expensive stands, ministerial ego world, which some members of the travel industry would like us to believe, represents reality?

Of course the pressure of the real world was always there. Quiet talk of economic pressures on traditional markets, some Ministers being called home to be replaced, the suggestion from the United Nations World Tourism Organisation that the ‘one billion’ world visitors figure might not be broken in 2011 or even 2012. There was even a suggestion that aisles at WTM were wider or the footfall – particularly on this closing day – softer. Where were the students and the young agents who are the future of our industry to be seen?

But as soon as the loudspeakers blared and the shutters rolled down anyone joining the taxi queue or the crowd heading for the DLR or even The Fox couldn’t fail to notice the headlines in the London Evening Standard thrust in to their hands. Of course there was page after page of Eurozone crisis, even mention of piracy and then ‘A military strike on Iran’s secret nuclear facilities might be the “least bad option”, the head of Britain’s intelligence and security committee said today.’

The first crisis is already here, and the travel & tourism industry is feeling the pinch. Europe is no longer what it once was. Times are hard, debt is soaring, people worry about their jobs. There is palpable worry about what the future will bring.

Can the travel & tourism industry afford the second potential crisis? Iran?

Let the record show that the WTM, one of the largest global gatherings of industry decision-makers, ended with not a word being said about the consequences of an attack on Iran, and certainly no mention about even trying to do anything to deter or prevent it.

The few non-commercial panel talk-shops were dominated by the Air Passenger Duty, responsible tourism, social media, climate change, visas, security issues and many other such worthy subjects, which the industry believes to be directly relevant to its health and well-being.

No matter what “solutions” were discussed to these problems, none will be worth the time or the breath expended on them in the event of another conflict in the Gulf.

It does not require a degree in rocket science to mull the consequences of such a conflict. The ash clouds that brought Europe and then Australasia to a halt will be a mere hiccup. With Iran’s atomic power stations and research laboratories deeply dug in to mountainsides any attack on them has to be major. Thousands will die, stock markets will crash, oil prices will soar and terrorism will be a surefire response. The Gulf airlines will see the bottom drop out of their business.  Overflights will be diverted at huge cost to airlines and passengers even after they’ve paid the vastly increased fuel charges. Thousands of migrant workers will lose their jobs. Contracts worth billions of dollars will be lost.

Ripple Effect

Depending on how long it rages, the prospects are very, very high of a wider ripple effect that will exacerbate economic, geopolitical, social and security problems worldwide.

None of the above needs to happen. Indeed, it is all eminently preventable, by bringing to bear the same force of principled leadership and public opinion that is shaping the much-lauded “Arab spring.” Attempting to stop those who will issue the orders for an attack on Iran is the right and responsibility of every individual who works in the industry. Most destination countries attending WTM will trumpet tourism as a major contributor to their GDP – what will happen when tourism just isn’t there?

In numerous presentations at the WTM, the UNWTO underscored the extent of the damage done to the industry by the numerous crises in what is referred to as “the lost decade.” Its bar chart of international visitor arrivals in the first decade of the 21st century clearly shows the yo-yoing performance, thanks to conflicts, terrorism, health pandemics, economic slumps and natural disasters.

Both the UNWTO and the World Travel & Tourism Council have already downgraded their tourism performance forecasts for the years ahead. Based on what UNWTO secretary-general Dr Taleb Rifai now refers to as the “certainty of uncertainty,” all these forecasts are ready to be instantly re-worked in the event of what are considered to be unforeseen and unpredictable circumstances, supposedly out of the industry’s control.


But an attack on Iran is neither unforeseen nor unpredictable, and preventing it is very much within the industry’s control. It is being widely and very publicly discussed. In fact, many voices are explicitly calling for it. One would have expected the travel & tourism industry, supposedly an industry of peace, jobs, income and economic development, to counter-balance these voices of aggression by raising its own voice of caution.

Sadly, that has not transpired.

Travel & tourism industry leaders claim they do not want to get involved in politics because it is supposedly out of their control. But this is not about politics; it is about principle. The average man on the street expects leaders to speak out on his behalf and do the jobs they are elected/appointed to do. That means primarily protecting livelihoods and combating poverty in the hope of achieving those Millennium Development Goals by the target date of 2015.

All around the world, the poor and the underprivileged are paying the price of leaders’ mistakes – be it those who have lost their jobs in the economic crisis or become casualties of the pursuit of freedom and democracy in the Middle East. The venue for the Ministers formal dinner at WTM had to be changed as numerous groups of activists across all age groups are camped out at St Paul’s cathedral protesting everything from outrageous financial industry bonuses to military expenditure, corruption and cronyism and the economic consequences thereof.

In his opening remarks at the panel discussion on the future of tourism in the Middle East and North Africa, Dr Rifai exhorted delegates never to forget the past but to learn from it. In his Press conference, Egyptian tourism minister Mounir Fakhry Abdel-Nour made clear that tourism is intertwined with both politics and geopolitics. Problems in one Middle East country invariably create complications in another by dint of perception by association, he said.

In his Press conference, WTTC CEO David Scowsill rued the confusion caused by visa and security hassles. And in his comment at the UNWTO/WTM ministerial summit, PATA CEO Martin Craigs blasted the APD as an “extraterritorial tax, which is illegal.”

Downstream Impact

But visas, security hassles and taxes are the consequences of faulty decision-making that lead to a downstream impact on safety and security. They are also the result of ordinary people backing away from their democratic right to hold global, regional and local leaders accountable for their lapses. This is just one of many critical past mistakes that are in deadly danger of being repeated.

Deep concern about an attack on Iran came up during numerous discussions with exhibitors and buyers on the WTM trade floor. The apprehension and worry is worsening what is already a stressful business outlook. Some say it will never happen; others are divided politically about its justification. Virtually no-one thinks it is a good idea. Any industry poll will bear that view out in no time.

It wasn’t just at WTM that these matters were ignored. At the recent 19th Session of the UNWTO General Assembly in Korea all these matters which are threatening the future of World Tourism were hardly mentioned by members more concerned with who got on what Committee.

It is precisely because it refuses to make its voice heard on global issues that matter, issues that go right to the heart of its raison d’être, that the industry is seldom taken seriously. It neither gains nor earns global respect. In fact, it does not deserve any, especially if it cannot raise its game to a higher level beyond the constant complaining about the lack of awareness of tourism as an economic force, and its resilience in bouncing back from crises.

In this joint column, we three travel industry journalists have become arguably the first to raise our voices against an attack on Iran. We do this to protect the jobs of the millions of ordinary people who work in this industry and have suffered from years of repeated crisis. We call on all those who value their jobs, livelihoods and the lives of the many potential victims to join us in our effort.

It is only when the people lead, that the leaders will follow.


Immediately after the WTM ended, Travel Impact Newswire Executive Editor Imtiaz Muqbil emailed four heads of global travel associations to seek a comment on the looming war clouds in the Gulf. The executives were David Scowsill of the World Travel & Tourism Council, Taleb Rifai of the UN World Tourism Organisation, Tom Jenkins of the European Tour Operators Association and Martin Craigs of the Pacific Asia Travel Association.

Mr Scowsill and Dr Rifai did not respond. Mr Jenkins declined comment. And Mr Craigs said: “Looming war clouds” are always undesirable, jaw jaw is my much preferred option of war war. I HAVE NO SPECIFIC COMMENT TO MAKE ON YOUR QUESTION…NO ONE HAS MENTIONED THE ISSUE OF IRAN TO ME ALL WEEK…(his capitalisation).”


Further reading

Israel refuses to alert US over Iran

Romney, Gingrich back war to keep Iran from nukes

Perry: I would back Israeli strike on Iran

Cartoon in China Daily

Kuwait ready for military strike against Iran

Germany voices opposition to military action against Iran

The region’s nuclear-weapon dilemma

Top Israeli firm: World more likely to accept nuclear Iran than pay high cost of war

Do the bomb Iran shuffle

US must keep Israel in check

What Israel can learn from Iran

The Iranian problem is not the Israeli problem

Russia to prevent military action against Iran: Duma official

UN warns against force in Iran nuclear standoff

All bark no bite

Israeli firm says costs too high on Iran strike

A Russian warning to Israel over Iran

Thomas Friedman’s bouts of hypocrisy

Tom Engelhardt: An All-American Nightmare: This Is What Defeat Looks Like

How US Policy Risks More 9/11s

An Iraq-WMD Replay on Iran?

Nuclear watchdog will want answers

‘Soviet nuclear scientist’ a rough diamond

IEA says oil price could spike to $150

Opinion | The IAEA Report on Iran’s Nuclear Program: Alarming or Hyped?

Iran: Here We Go Again?

UN nuke report on Iran adds to tension

Bombing Iran would have “serious impact”

U.S. demands Iran respond to IAEA report within days

Obama: U.S. and Russia seeking ‘common response’ to Iran nuclear plans

Republican presidential hopefuls slam Obama on Iran

The Russel Tribunal on Palestine

Opportunity for Israeli Palestinian Peace ‘Slipping Away’, Fourth Committee Hears During Consideration of Special Committee to Investigate Israeli Practices

In pictures: Occupy London protest swells

Republican presidential hopefuls slam Obama on Iran