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22 Apr, 2013

UNWTO Chief: Visas, Security Issues “Not Out of our Hands”

Hyderabad, Andhra Pradesh, India – The UN World Tourism Organisation has called on the global travel & tourism industry to stop assuming that visas and security-related travel restrictions are “out of our hands” and work towards ensuring that 98% of legitimate global travellers do not become inadvertent victims of rules aimed at the remaining 2%. Speaking at the 25th Joint Meeting of the UNWTO Regional Commissions for South Asia, East Asia and the Pacific held between 12 – 14 April in Hyderabad, UNWTO Secretary-General Dr Taleb Rifai said tourism officials and executives would be well within their rights to challenge the logic of imposing stringent visa policies as a kneejerk reaction to security concerns.

Dr Rifai’s game-changing comments at the UNWTO´s principal annual event in the Asia Pacific are designed to empower the global travel & tourism industry to overcome its sense of assumed helplessness in challenging the rationale for visa-curbs, usually the first reaction after any global geopolitical crisis. He was commenting during a discussion on the relationship between visa policies and visitor arrivals which, along with unfair taxation of the travel & tourism industry, has become a cornerstone of Dr Rifai’s advocacy programme in the past year. In the course of the discussion, the Vietnamese delegation mentioned that visa policy is a matter that is “out of our hands.”

But Mr Rifai stepped in to offer a contrarian perspective and stressed it was time to move away from “assuming that we cannot do anything about it.”

“There is no proof that that more visas means more security,” he said, citing the example of Europe which has a stringent visa policy for non-Europeans but still faces a major illegal immigration problem, 95% of which is caused by people who come without a visa. “The issue of illegal immigration and security is not connected. If you have a visa at least you know who is in the country. Illegal immigration cannot be blamed on tourism. They cannot say you are responsible for this. Nearly all the acts of terrorism are committed by people who either have legitimate visas or were local residents of the countries concerned.”

He cited the example of department stores which know they face a shoplifting problem, which may amount to a miniscule 2% to 3% of total sales. “However, they also know that if they want to stop shoplifting 100%, they would have to stop and body-search everybody, in which case they will lose 50% of their customers. So they find it preferable to deal specifically with the 2% rather than punish the remaining 98%. The same should apply in the case of visas. How can you punish the entire tourism industry for what may be a relatively small percentage of the overall problem?”

He also called for more solid proof of the extent of the problem. “If there is abuse of tourism visas, let’s establish exactly how much abuse.” Urging the Asia Pacific NTO representatives to take up the issue with their respective security and Foreign Ministry officials, Dr Rifai voiced confidence that both will listen to reason and well-constructed arguments. “We have to challenge the logic, not the authority.”

He said the UNWTO is ready to provide both political and technical help. If national tourism organisations cannot press the case on their own, they could work with regional and subregional authorities. He also encouraged delegates to leverage the name of the UNWTO which he said is working with the World Travel & Tourism Council to conduct an evaluation of the impact of visa facilitation in APEC region to be finalized by September 2013 and with OECD in the identification of case studies and setting of joint recommendations.

In earlier introductory remarks at the same meeting, Dr Rifai confirmed that he will be standing for another four-year term 2014-17. As the deadline for nominations has expired, and no other nominations were received, Dr Rifai said his candidacy will be taken up by the UNWTO Executive Council meeting in May and tabled for formal approval at the UNWTO General Assembly in Zimbabwe in August.

The first Arab head of the UN WTO, Dr Rifai is a trained architect, former tourism Minister or Jordan and a former Assistant Director General of the International Labour Organization (ILO). He has presided over a challenging period of world tourism history, plagued by global economic volatility, geopolitical instability and an assortment of wider social and environmental problems. In spite of that, under his tenure, more people are travelling more often than ever before.

In 2012, international tourist arrivals grew by 3.8% to reach an historic milestone of over one billion (1.035 billion). International tourism in Asia and the Pacific in 2012 (+7%) was up by 15 million arrivals, reaching a total 233 million. South-East Asia (+9%) was the best performing sub-region thanks to policies that foster intraregional cooperation and coordination in tourism. The highest growth rates in expenditure abroad were by emerging economies – China (+42%) and Russia (+31%). In 2013, Dr Rifai said international tourist arrivals are forecast to increase globally by 3% to 4%, and by 5-6% in Asia and the Pacific

However, Dr Rifai indicated that this growth had raised another set of issues, specifically related to managing the growth and the big-picture, long-term impact on environment, cultures and communities. Speaking at a one-day conference on sustainable tourism development which preceded the joint commissions meeting, Dr Rifai cited the impact of both the huge volume of international arrivals as well as the far bigger statistic, 5.5 billion domestic visitors. “The earth must be shaking,” he said. “It is a revolution never experienced before.”

However, he added, such growth has to be managed, not slowed or curbed just for the sake of sustainability. “The principle of growth and sustainability is not a zero-sum game. I disagree with any efforts to limit industry growth as a means of enhancing its sustainability. More growth must mean more efforts directed at preservation and sustainability. At the same time, more growth must never, ever allowed to damage culture, societies and the fabrics of our economies. This is what we depend on to generate the growth in the first place. We must utilise the knowledge base and the wisdom of this industry to make it a better place.”

He noted that until the Earth Summit held in Rio de Janeiro in June 1992, the entire focus of global economic development was more on growth and less on sustainability. Now, he added, “alarm bells are going off” about the impact of the sweeping changes taking place in the name of globalisation. He noted that “the entire concept of sustainable development is all about doing what’s best for life on this earth, and life is about the people and the environment. The tourism industry has to asses what we have done right, and where we need to do things more right. We have to honour our obligation to life on earth.”

Having presided over the crossing of the one billion international tourist arrivals mark in 2013, Dr Rifai indicated that one of his priority targets now is the 2015 deadline set by the UN Millennium Summit in 1999 to meet the eight Millennium Development Goals. This involves closer coordination with the other UN agencies and international development organisations, all of which are now focussed on the 2015 target.

To advance this cause, the UNWTO for the first time hosted the spring meeting of the 29 Chief Executives of all the UN agencies as well as the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) between 5-6 April 2013. Chaired by the UN Secretary-General Mr Ban Ki-Moon, the bi-annual UN agency executive heads is the prime instrument for coordination of UN inter-governmental bodies on social, economic and related matters and facilitate the UN system’s collective response to global challenges, such as climate change and the global financial crisis. The meeting in Madrid coincided with tenth anniversary of the UNWTO becoming a fully-fledged UN agency.

Reporting on the outcome of this meeting to the Asia-Pacific NTOs in Hyderabad, Dr Rifai said, “I am proud to say that it gave us a golden opportunity to put tourism at the centre stage and explore ways by which travel & tourism can contribute to the achievement of the Millennium Development Goals. The UN system is now planning for the post-2015 agenda. We know that tourism contributes to eradication of poverty, gender equality and environmental sustainability. But now we need go beyond that.” He said the UNWTO would be giving both the MDGs target date and the post-2015 development agenda a higher priority in future.

In this context, Dr Rifai drew the attention of the Asia-Pacific NTOs to the Global Code of Ethics for Tourism, a comprehensive set of principles designed to guide governments, the travel industry, communities and tourists in maximising the sector’s benefits while minimising potentially negative impact on the environment, cultural heritage and societies.

Adopted in 1999 by the UNWTO General Assembly, it was acknowledged at a much higher wider level, the UN General Assembly in 2001. Although the UNGA resolution expressly the encouraged UNWTO to promote the effective follow-up of its provisions, the Code has not gained much traction. Dr Rifai indicated it was time for that to change. Although not legally binding, the Code features a voluntary implementation mechanism through its recognition of the role of the World Committee on Tourism Ethics (WCTE), to which stakeholders may refer matters concerning the application and interpretation of the document.

Dr Rifai’s policy agenda won unanimous support from all the NTOs, especially Indian Tourism Minister Mr K Chiranjeevi. In his comments during the meetings, the minister lauded the emphasis on poverty alleviation and environmental sustainability. He noted that Dr Babasaheb Ambedkar, one of India’s Independence movement leaders, had enshrined these principles of development in the Indian constitution. Today, the minister added, in spite of economic growth, there is “a deep sense of despair about the degradation taking place in name of development.”

He added, “Let’s strike a balance between development and the responsibility to future generations. Policymakers can communicate the importance of sustainability to masses and stakeholders. Youth can act as a driving force for an agenda for sustainability. Tourism can foster tolerance and peace in the world better than any other sector. It promotes harmony amongst peoples and cultures.” Calling for the Hyderabad meeting “to be a turning point” in the journey, he concluded by citing Mahatma Gandhi’s famous dictum, “There is enough in this world for everyone’s need but not for everyone’s greed.”