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28 Feb, 2013

An Open Letter to Tourism Ministers at ITB 2013: Your Job Now Is To Protect Ours

Imtiaz Muqbil, Executive Editor

Dear Ministers:

The ITB 2013 will be held at a critical juncture in global history. What the World Economic Forum refers to as the “Seeds of Dystopia are sprouting shoots everywhere. The ongoing tectonic power shifts include the rise of the Asian Century, decline of the Western industrialised world, turbulence in the Arab/Islamic world and many more economic, technological, social, and cultural changes.

For travel & tourism, this global feng shui is fraught with both challenges and opportunities. In the past two decades of globalisation, positive changes in the world order have created jobs for millions. But negative crises have also lost jobs for millions. Today, a tourism minister’s job is not so much to create new jobs but more to safeguard existing jobs. The former is easy; relaxing visas and boosting marketing budgets can produce quick results. The latter is more challenging; it requires shielding local jobs from the negative ripple-effect impact of global actions taken by external parties in foreign lands.

Tackling this public-service priority will require courageous leadership and a new strategy based on a historical analysis of the many crises that struck travel & tourism in the first decade of the 21st century.

Why is an accurate historical analysis important? One tourism minister, Dato Dr Ng Yen Yen of Malaysia, is perhaps best placed to provide an answer. A doctor by profession, she knows that sustainable remedies can only be prescribed after examining a patient’s medical history. She also knows the importance of holistic solutions and prevention before cure.

A famous dictum says that those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it. This year marks four anniversaries of historical events which have some bearing on the “fevers” raging in the travel system. All are related to geopolitics, which has emerged as the primary determinant of travel & tourism performance, both plus and minus.

The year 2012 provided ample proof of that claim. When instability strikes in the Middle East, or when confrontations erupt between India-Pakistan or China and the Philippines and Japan, bilateral visitor arrivals take a hit. When military dictatorships begin to fade, such as in Myanmar, or when terrorist insurgencies end, as in Sri Lanka, tourism booms.

As all geopolitical “fevers” are man-made, those who created them must be held accountable. Those at the receiving end also reserve the right to do whatever it takes to prevent them. This means shifting travel & tourism from “crisis management” to “crisis prevention”. The travel & tourism industry is not known for diagnosing its problems well. This, because industry leaders focus on symptoms and not the cause, largely for reasons of political correctness. Is that a sustainable future option?

The following four anniversaries highlight the historical root causes of many of today’s man-made and highly destabilising geopolitical fevers:

March 2003 – Ten years since the US-UK attack on Iraq, justified by the oft-repeated claim that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction. Those claims are now described as “weapons of mass deception”. Hundreds of thousands of people died because a small clique of global leaders lied. Many thousands more were injured and maimed. The trillions of dollars wasted could otherwise have worked wonders for poverty alleviation worldwide. No-one was held accountable. Far from being the “Mission Accomplished” so valiantly declared by former U.S. President George W. Bush Jr, the situation in Iraq is a major reason for the continued instability in many parts of the Middle East today.

June 25, 1903 – 110th anniversary of the birth of George Orwell, the British political journalist and satirist whose name is associated with the totalitarianism, lies and doublespeak depicted in two of his most famous literary works Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four, a dangerous, shadowy world that many believe is now emerging as people lose their privacy, security and probably soon, their individuality. Increasing abuse of democratic freedoms, growing secrecy and surveillance, racial profiling and other human rights violations are proving true many of Orwell’s predictions of a “Big Brother”-hood, all in the name of combatting terrorism.

October 1973 – 40 years since the Arab-Israeli war. The Arabs lost, but their near-victory gave them a brief sense of power and faith in their two most formidable assets: unity and energy resources. In the 40 years since, the Arabs have squandered both, one reason for their dire state today. The long-standing Arab-Israeli dispute over Palestine is a geopolitical cancer bleeding the world. Many believe that the United States and Europe are only interested in “managing” the dispute, not resolving it. Their campaign to divide, destabilise and defeat the Arab/Islamic world is still in progress. But a pushback has begun, and will grow in intensity. The so-called “Arab spring” is very much a part of that.

April 1963 – 50 years since the release of the movie “The Ugly American”, starring Marlon Brando as a U.S. ambassador to a fictitious country named Sarkhan. Shot partly in Thailand, the movie was about U.S. diplomatic skulduggery as it strives to fight off communism in Southeast Asia. If you have seen “Argo”, download and see “The Ugly American”. It will identify the failed strategies that led to the 1975 U.S. defeat in Vietnam and the failed tactics still being deployed to maintain the U.S. status as a self-appointed, unelected global leader. As many speeches delivered in recent years at the annual sessions of the UN General Assembly prove, this status is widely resented. At least one tourism minister, Mr. K. Chiranjeevi of India, is a former film-star. He knows well the significance of movies for communicating public messages, both positive and negative.

Today, the Planet Earth and its human inhabitants are suffering from multiple ailments. The West is mired in an economic and geopolitical quagmire. Its competitive advantages are fraying. Its commitment to freedom, democracy and human rights is facing accusations of double standards and hypocrisy. New powers such as China, India and the ASEAN countries are emerging. Mini-conflicts are raging on many fronts. Economic and ecological problems are mounting. Demographic challenges are looming. Natural disasters are regular occurrences. The laws of unintended consequences are kicking in far too often.

The UNWTO boasts that in spite of this turbulence, the world recorded more than one billion foreign visitor arrivals in 2012. The number of domestic visitors is probably 10 times higher. While that may be a great indicator of industry resilience, the figure would have been achieved by 2010, perhaps even earlier, if the first decade of the 21st century had not been marked by the string of man-made “fevers”. A detailed diagnosis of these “fevers” is required to assess their impact on travel & tourism.

Thanks to job-creating policies and strategies undertaken in the 1980s and 1990s, more people have the desire and means to travel to more places more often than at any other time in history. The new ballgame in the 21st century will require tourism ministers of today to navigate a new course through the gales of change. You will have a critical role to play in defining the new generation of “impediments to growth” and creating policies to avoid, prevent and pre-empt them.

A robust and democratic debate is long overdue about the ways and means of doing that. This debate must move away from listening only to investors, chief executives, bureaucrats and consultants, many of whom are part of the problem. It must give a voice to those who are directly involved in protecting jobs – the International Labour Organisation, the International Trade Union Confederation and many more institutions, grassroots organisations and activists whose voices are never heard at travel industry forums.

In medical parlance, it would amount to seeking a second opinion.

Global leaders are facing what is widely known as a “trust deficit.” When people elect leaders, they trust them to do the right thing, based on principle, not politics. Just like seeing a doctor. When the next crisis strikes, as it inevitably will, and industry starts shedding jobs, we the people will be well within our rights to demand some answers about why you didn’t do more to prevent it.

Learning the lessons of history and honouring public trust needs to become the “new normal.” Your job, and indeed your place in history, depends on it. All it takes is for one visionary, courageous tourism minister to take the lead, and the rest will follow.