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14 Nov, 2011

Tourism Needs Sharper Human Rights Focus – UK NGO

Imtiaz Muqbil at the WTM 2011 in London

The issue of human rights in the travel & tourism industry hit the public spotlight for the first time at the World Travel Market 2011. Panelists at a seminar were briefed on a new report issued by the UK-based tourism watchdog group Tourism Concern calling on the industry to start incorporating human rights into their policy platforms and corporate codes. The report says doing so will help “make tourism truly sustainable” and safeguard the industry’s multinational corporations from the adverse glare of “name and shame” publicity.

The first question that comes up is what exactly is meant by “human rights” in tourism. The report describes it as including issues such as “forced relocation, illegal land acquisitions, pollution leading to ill health and loss of livelihoods, inequitable access to water and other scarce natural resources, cultural erosion, poor pay and working conditions, child labour, and sexual exploitation.” Others include the rights of indigenous peoples, the right to dignity and privacy and the right to participate. It adds, “Human rights arguably underpin all three elements of business sustainability: social, environmental, and economic.”

It calls for companies to do a “due diligence” on their performance in these areas, noting that they themselves will be the primary beneficiaries. It notes that as tourism growth “is part of the wider expanding role and power of business in an increasingly globalised world, this expansion means that corporate responsibilities in relation to human rights are under growing scrutiny by governments, international development agencies, campaigning groups and the business sector itself, including shareholders and investors.

“The recent banking crisis and global recession, as well as major scandals involving a number of multinational conglomerates “have seen consumer trust in big business and governments plummet and heightened awareness of the role of business in social and environmental issues. Numerous companies from a range of business sectors have been implicated in human rights scandals in recent years, including many in the tourism industry.”

Loss of Share Value

The consequences are clear, the report says. “‘Naming and shaming’ by campaigning groups and the media is common, facilitated by the growth in new media and social networking, and numerous legal cases have been brought against companies accused of human rights abuses. Almost all see their reputations and brand images suffer, with consequences such as loss of share value, increased security and insurance costs, expensive lawsuits, and even consumer boycotts.”

A stark reminder of these consequences was more than apparent. The WTM itself was held against the backdrop of the Qantas labour dispute and a statement issued by the IUF, a Geneva-based federation of hotel and tourism industry unions, regarding alleged abuses by some hotels in Canada under the management of the Accor group. The statement denouncing Accor was posted on the IUF website on Nov 7, the first day of the WTM, but gained no headlines during the show itself. Out at St. Paul’s many labour activists, unionists and others were camped protesting the misguided economic policies that have deprived them of jobs and livelihoods, while upper-crust executives in the financial sector continue to enjoy the good life.

The report itself cites a number of destinations where it alleges human rights are being violated. In Kerala, re-development plans in the aftermath of the Dec 2004 tsunami are seeing “an array of tourism-related rights violations committed against vulnerable communities. These include land grabs by state and private sector interests, loss of livelihoods, exclusion from decision-making, and negative sociocultural impacts.” It also cites Jamaica where, it says, “the coastlines are rapidly being privatised for tourism, affecting the rights to freedom of movement, land, livelihood and natural resources of local people.” The report does not provide any space for the named parties to offer a rebuttal.

The report admits that the issue of human rights in the business world is in fact nothing new. At a wider economic and corporate level, it has already been included in the agendas of numerous international groupings such as the international chambers of commerce, the OECD, United Nations agencies, and many more. It also cites a number of global hotel chains (Marriott, Rezidor, InterContinental) and one global tour operator (Kuoni) as seeking to enhance the role of human rights in their corporate agendas.


While its objective is clear and important, the report is open to a number of challenges. Tourism Concern itself is funded by the UK Department for International Development and has to find new ways to keep its activities in the public domain in order to ensure continued funding support. This report is essentially little more than a compilation of existing material, codes, international agreements and treaties, with a pitch for the industry to start observing them. It could be counter-argued that the travel & tourism industry is already doing so. The report also focuses on the large corporations, but ignores the fact that most of the human rights violations are arguably being committed by the small and medium sized enterprises, especially in terms of labour rights and environmental rules.

The report was introduced at a panel discussion which included speakers from Amnesty International, Kuoni and Unilever, in addition to Tourism Concern. Their presentations dwelt on the obvious. The absence of trade unionists, lawyers or other activists diluted the value of the content and made it more of a self-serving talk-shop rather than a genuine debate.

With the Eurozone crisis set to usher in a long period of austerity, there is no doubt that serious confrontations are looming between business, social and environmental sectors right across the development paradigm. Watchdog groups have a very important role to play in ensuring that the tourism industry practices what it preaches. But they, too, will need to take a leaf from the corporate book and come up with better research, more innovative ideas and solutions, and a more exhaustive analysis of successes and failures. Or else, they appear to be making just another feeble attempt to ensure their own funding sources do not get eliminated come the next round of government budget cuts.

The full report can be downloaded FREE here.