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24 Oct, 2013

STB Chief Open to Talks with Tourism Civil Society Groups for Inclusion in TravelRave Programme

By Imtiaz Muqbil at ITB Asia

Singapore: Lionel Yeo, Chief Executive of the Singapore Tourism Board, says he is open to talks with civil society and non-governmental organisations about holding forums and events as part of an effort to broaden the knowledge-base content of TravelRave and ITB Asia.

In his opening comments at the ITB Asia launch press conference on 23 October, Mr. Yeo said, “We look for partners who challenge us and those will be challenged by us. It is only by challenging each other that we will raise each other’s game, and deliver value to the trade, their customers and the public.”

He said that the total of eight TravelRave events this week did not happen by chance but had been “carefully curated” to build on the success of and the opportunities afforded by the anchor-event, ITB Asia.

He said they were all intended to grow the knowledge base of the industry by applying three types of synergies – across markets, content and networks – so that various “movers and shakers” from different professions and disciplines could meet and mingle. The full list of TravelRave events can be found here.

In the Q&A session, this editor asked Mr. Yeo how the travel industry could be properly “challenged” without giving a platform to an “opposition” which is necessary to act as a check-and-balance mechanism and promote accountability, as would be the case in any democratic set-up.

He was asked to explain the absence of environmentalists, human rights activists, trade unionists and others who are rarely, if at all, given a voice to challenge the industry at its various forums.

Referring to this question as an interesting observation, Mr. Yeo said: “We will be driven by what works in the market.” Agreeing on the need to take a look at the “whole economy”, he said he is open to the idea. “If the civil society groups and NGOs have an interest in organising such events, please ask them to talk to us.”

The only civil society forum included in the programme of events is on Protecting Children From Sex Tourism.  However, this campaign admits that tourism is not the cause of the problem but only facilitates it. At a broader level, sexual exploitation of children is only a miniscule component of the far more numerous and serious problems that have emerged as a result of unbridled tourism growth.

The press conference was otherwise dominated by rah-rah comments about exactly this growth, and how the STB and Messe Berlin have partnered to build on it to make ITB Asia a “must attend” event.

In addition to the boom triggered by infrastructure progress, technology improvements, visa facilitation and the rising Asia-Pacific middle class, this year’s show is benefitting from diversionary travel business caused by global geopolitical trends such as the continuing crises in parts of the Middle East and the economic crises in Europe.

China has overtaken Germany and Japan as the world’s largest travel source-market. Booming arrivals from China and Russia have contributed to double digit growth in arrivals to Thailand this year. Greece and Russia are exhibiting for the first time. There is also a strong United States presence.

Representing the UN World Tourism Organisation, Mr Márcio Favilla, Executive Director for Competitiveness, External Relations and Partnerships, noted that the emergence of Myanmar would give a further impetus to this growth, and testified to the economic fruits to be reaped by the advent of peace and stability.

However, the fact that not a word was mentioned about the numerous down-sides of this growth further underscored the well-known reputation of travel industry forums as mutual admiration clubs of people preaching to the converted.

That may change if Mr. Yeo’s willingness to give civil society a “voice” at such forums does in fact materialise, and if Singapore’s political culture allows the freedom of expression that such events would require.

At the same time, the success of ITB Asia is being accompanied by clear danger signs, which had also been anticipated.

Costs are rising in the island nation, which is struggling with a labour shortage. Hotel rates are also edging up and a number of sellers are beginning to complain that Messe Berlin is taking advantage of having overtaken the PATA Travel Mart as the region’s leading travel show to start raising rates for basic participation and ancillary services.

Although Messe Berlin may be able to get away with that due to ITB Asia’s top-dog status at the moment, it may produce a different outcome over the next three years when ITB Asia will move to Marina Bay Sands.

Further cost increases for exhibitors could well trigger a flight to the small and medium shows, as well as niche-market events coming up in far more low-cost cities of Asia. The TravelRave idea could also generate copycat events elsewhere. Singapore’s cost-structure, virtually impossible to trim in the face of global financial crises and pressures, will become a huge competitive disadvantage.

The fact that Messe Berlin does not display any financial transparency in its business arrangements over ITB Asia only raises further questions about whether exhibitors are being levied a fair rate of increase, and what Messe Berlin is trying to hide, and why.