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4 Oct, 2012

Imtiaz Muqbil’s Presentation at the “Thrilla in Manila” PATA Debate


MANILA: On 27 September 2012, Travel Impact Newswire Executive Editor Imtiaz Muqbil and PATA CEO Martin Craigs faced off in an historic debate, arguably the first of its kind at a travel industry forum. Marketed as the “Thrilla in Manila”, it was held at the PATA Youth Forum held alongside the PATA Travel Mart in Manila. The official title of the debate was: “The Future of Travel & Tourism in the New World Order: What’s Hot and What’s Not?” Their debating partners were respectively Danielle Bill B. Salanio and Mary Aubrey Atienza Guinto.

The audience, mainly undergrad University students, trashed the Muqbil/Salanio arguments in favour of the motion by a margin of nearly 10 to 1. But although Muqbil lost the battle, he won the war. The real objective of the debate was to trigger more such debates at industry forums, which are sagging under the weight of sponsorship pressure and stagnating intellectually. Already, Muqbil is getting requests to speak at or moderate more such debates. A number of otherwise boring industry academic conferences are also considering enlivening their proceedings by converting some of their sessions into a debate format.

The game-changing debate was the joint initiative of Messrs Muqbil and Craigs, but the latter deserves credit for actioning it for the first time as part of the PATA Travel Mart. Hopefully, it will be continued in future PATA events.

The following is the full text of Muqbil’s presentation

Congratulations to PATA, the Lyceum of Philippines University, and all of you present for being present here on this historic occasion in the annals of travel & tourism. This is the first such debate in the 61 years of PATA. And my first question is: Why has it taken PATA so long to hold it?

Whatever the answer, it will be a game-changer by raising the level of discourse beyond the traditional comfort zones. Most important, it is a win-win situation for all – for PATA in terms of setting a new agenda, for the young generation to  have an opportunity to challenge leaders, for the industry to have an opportunity to challenge conventional wisdoms, for industry events and forums to break the mould and do something that is intellectually nourishing. All of the above can generate positive change.

The topic of this inaugural debate is perfect: The Future of Travel & Tourism in a New World Order: What’s hot and what’s not? My view is: Everything is hot. There is no room for silo mentality. The future of the world, the future of Asia and ASEAN, the future of travel & tourism – all these affect the future of the future generations. Your future. Indeed, in thinking about change, even more important is what has not changed – because the real clash of the future is between what can/must change and what cannot/must not change. The tools will change but the values will not. Short term leaders work on the symptoms, long-term leaders focus on the cause. True leaders know the difference.

Before looking to the future, it is critical to reflect on the past and the importance of the Philippines in the New World Order, the rise of the Asian Century and the emerging ASEAN community. Asia has been through a long history of colonisation, dictatorships and exploitation both by non-Asians and by its own leaders. But Asia is today what it is because of people who fought and died for freedom, independence and democracy. On December 30, 1896, Jose Rizal was executed by the Spaniards. Do you know how old he was? (35) On August 21, 1983, Benigno “Ninoy” Aquino, Jr. was assassinated allegedly on orders of the former US-backed dictator Ferdinand Marcos. Do you know how old he was? (51). I pay tribute to these leaders for their ultimate sacrifice. You are all here today because of them.

Let me make you proud to be Filipino.

Do you realise that it was your People Power Revolution which triggered off a series of revolutions in Asia? Here’s a history lesson. In 1986, Marcos was ousted. In 1992, just six years later, another People Power revolution took place in Asia. Do you know where? Thailand. The Thai people rose up against military coups by staring down a military dictatorship in what became known as the first Mobile Phone revolution. In 1997, Asia was hit by the economic crisis and swore to itself: Never Again. In 1998, another leader quit after a popular revolt. Do you know who? (Indonesian president Suharto). Since then, two other leaders stepped down voluntarily, Mahathir Mohammed in Malaysia and Lee Kuan Yew in Singapore. Today, in 2012, dictators are stepping aside in yet another country. Do you know where? (Myanmar). More change is yet to come.

In the midst of this change, the border lines between revolution and evolution have faded. Asia is still a vast mix of dictatorships, democracies, kingdoms, sultanates. But no matter what country, province, city or industry association leaders are running, all have one fundamental objective – to ensure peace and stability so that people can have jobs and livelihoods, safety and security.

Let’s take a deeper look at the issues which impact on jobs and livelihoods, safety and security. Again, the Philippines offers the best example. Your country is probably the most exposed and most vulnerable in the face of the three most significant categories of risks facing the world today: economic, ecological and geopolitical.

Ecologically, the most severe threat is global warming and climate change. Your country gets hit by more typhoons and hurricanes than any other in ASEAN. If sea levels rise, many of your coastlines and islands will disappear, forcing mass migration. Economically, your country is more dependent on remittances from the Middle East than any other in ASEAN. That makes your economy very vulnerable to upheavals there. Hence, if there is any further geopolitical conflagration in the Middle East, thousands of jobs and livelihoods in the Philippines will go down the drain.

Which of those issues would you like to see swept under the carpet?

Yes, geopolitical issues do impact on us – immediately and strongly. There is an ongoing dispute with China and this travel show has already been impacted by it. How many jobs have been lost as a result?

In an interrelated, interconnected world, nothing is out of bounds. The travel & tourism industry has a very, very special role to play in a changing world. We are the only, I repeat, only industry that creates jobs across all sectors of society. We contribute to poverty alleviation, infrastructure development, heritage and culture preservation, environmental upkeep, health and wellness. We claim to be an industry of peace. People are travelling for all kinds of reasons these days, from business travel to VFR, for study, voluntourism, spirituality and many more. We have been connecting people long before Nokia came along. The Minister of Tourism portfolio literally means minister of everything.

Because of our positive impact, it behoves us to raise the level of our game. We may not have the solutions but we must insist on our right to have a say and hold constructive, free for all debates on each and every issue that we believe will affect our jobs, livelihoods, peace and stability. In other words, rather than sweeping these issues under the carpet, we should become mature enough to debate and discuss them. We may not agree on anything but that’s part of the fun. People will make up their own minds.

So, I repeat, everything is hot. Harking back to the memories of Jose Rizal and Benigno Aquino, the choice was pretty clear – you were either on the right side of history or the wrong side. The people had to take a stand. The people decided that colonialism and dictatorships were bad, that freedom and independence were good. And the price of doing the right thing can be very high. Both Rizal and Aquino knew the risks. History is full of such people. Nelson Mandela, Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King, and many more.

Travel & tourism’s loftiest claim to fame thus far has been in terms of job creation. Today, however, I would argue job creation is not an issue, job preservation is. Economies can only work if they are underpinned by peace and stability. This process of evolution and revolution taking place today is both anti-neocolonial and anti-dictatorships. The definitions of colonialism and dictatorships have broadened significantly. Currency speculators sitting behind computer screens in distant capitals can bankrupt a country with the press of a few buttons. This is what happened in Thailand in 1997. Cyberattacks can shut down a country’s infrastructure. PATA Ceo Martin Craigs broke new ground in the history of travel & tourism by describing the UK Airline Passenger Duty as a form of neocolonialism. Precisely right. But it is only a very small tip of the iceberg. He needs to broaden the agenda.

So my argument today is very simple. My job is to help you preserve yours. In true democracies, freedom to debate is fundamental. So, it behoves the travel & tourism industry to put everything on the table – from the complexities of globalisation, to the shaping of the new world order, to the impact of technology, to the role and responsibilities of governments, the media and multinational corporations, to safety and security. Travel & tourism forums need to become like parliaments, bastions of democracy where two sides indulge in a constructive, healthy debate about anything and everything that may affect them and their livelihoods.

Over the years, travel & tourism has become a top-down industry in which those with power, money, influence and status tell the rest of us what is good for us and and what they consider to be “right”. If that is true, why is the world in such a mess? Why is so much money being spent on militaries and bailouts of bankrupt multinationals? Why cannot polished diplomats negotiate peace?

Let’s debate these issues. Let’s put them on the table, let every representative of society have their say, such as the trades union and civil society and consumer protection groups. Give the voiceless a voice and then watch the travel & tourism industry flourish. If the industry won’t do it, universities should. Don’t forget: there is a big difference between treating the symptoms and the cause. True leaders are those who know the difference.

Finally, I worry about the state of the world and the future I am bequeathing my children. Like Rizal and Aquino, I see many things being done wrong and have a burning desire to set things right, where I can. Judging from the hate mail I get, my wife worries that I may suffer the same fate. But I take comfort in the fact that never in history has it been possible to fool all the people all the time. And unjust leaders always fall. Always.

You, the young generation of today, have to also decide whether you want to be part of the solution or passively accept becoming victims of problems you did not create. You must learn from the lessons of history and assert your right to have a say on each and every issue that affects your jobs and your livelihoods. Check and balance systems are good for the system. Transparency and accountability keep leaders and decision-makers honest. They enhance trust, credibility and respect, three of the most valuable assets for any country or institution.

Thank you very much to PATA, the university and to you all for being part of this historic game changing event. There will be no winners and losers. Only winners. That will be a truly fitting conclusion.