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4 Mar, 2015

Ten issues that will NOT be on the agenda at the brain-dead ITB Berlin

BANGKOK – In his March 3 speech at the opening of the 2015 ITB Berlin, UNWTO Secretary-General Dr Talib Rifai raised the game for the travel & tourism industry worldwide by citing a number of previously taboo issues that are reshaping the New World Order. Embedded within his speech were key phrases that should challenge travel & tourism to redefine, reset and reboot its own agenda accordingly.

Dr Rifai talked of today’s technological revolutions ushering in “a new paradigm – a time when power shifts from governments to citizens and from companies to consumers.” Empowered by their mobile devices, “today’s consumers can be the whistle-blowers for unethical practices or the biggest ambassadors for great experiences,” he said. At the same time, he added, “With power comes responsibility – a shared responsibility towards the planet and the people…. In today’s interconnected world every problem is a global problem – a global concern and therefore a global responsibility.” In the most defining quote, he said, “Now more than ever we must ask ourselves – does tourism contribute to the wellbeing of the world, or to its peril?” Click here to download the full speech (as prepared for delivery).

In other words: Is travel & tourism a part of the solution or a part of the problem? Is it about to become a victim of its own gargantuan growth? Has it exceeded the speed limit? Does it need to do some soul-searching about the past before taking a new look at the future? Can it ever enjoy stability in an external operating environment marked by perpetual instability?

All these questions and issues have been on the horizon for several years. Dr Rifai has simply put them into the public domain. The futurists, “recognised experts” and “top decision-makers” leaders who have met over the years at the ITB Berlin Convention should have been flagging these issues long ago. However, a look at this year’s programme content indicates no discussions about travel & tourism as a potential source of “peril,” or the role of whistleblowers, or shared responsibility or the impact of power shifts. That makes the ITB Convention’s claim to be a forum where participants can “know today what you need to know tomorrow” both incomplete and questionable.

To rectify that deficiency and help responsible industry conference organisers to build on Dr Rifai’s words, this editor has compiled Ten Key Issues (TKIs) that are having, and/or will have, a direct impact on the way travel & tourism operates. I think they much better fit the claim to “know today what you need to know tomorrow.”

1. THE FAILURE OF GLOBALISATION: After the 1989 fall of the Berlin Wall and the dismantling of communism, the world was supposedly on course for a new millennium of geopolitical peace and economic prosperity. Neither has transpired. The World Economic Forum describes global conditions as a state of “dystopia”. Although travel & tourism has been a major driver of globalisation, a truly objective analysis of its pros and cons has never been done. If foreign investment pours into a developing country, how much exits as leakage to pay for capital imports, licensing fees, commissions, management and marketing contracts, advertising, etc? Why doesn’t any tourism minister have the gumption to ask some hard questions about who is really benefitting from globalisation, and what is the real bottom-line impact of travel & tourism, after deducting leakage?

2. THE EXPENDITURE ON WARS: How much has been squandered on wars, including the so-called “War on Terror” and conflicts in Sudan, Ukraine, Palestine, Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria, and more? Who is benefitting? Wouldn’t the world have been far more safe and sustainable if that money had been poured into meeting the UN Millennium Development Goals and building schools and hospitals instead of military bases? Perhaps some high-powered research comparing global defence budgets vs tourism budgets would show the stark differences between the amounts global taxpayers are wasting to subsidise the merchants of death as against promoting the industry of peace.

3. THE EXPENDITURE ON SAFETY & SECURITY: Global conflict has led to corollary forms of tension, which has heightened safety and security issues and cost global taxpayers trillions more dollars. Weapons-dealers find civilian markets easy pickings to offload obsolete equipment and create jobs for the legions of retiring military personnel. If that continues, airports, convention centres, hotels, malls, railway and bus terminals will soon look like quasi-military bases. Safety and security consultants are salivating at the massive potential revenue stream. For those looking to get out of the low-yield travel & tourism industry, the “safety & security” business is a much more profitable option.

4. THE IMPACT ON PRIVACY AND DEMOCRATIC FREEDOMS: For the first time, Dr Rifai mentioned the role of whistleblowers. This editor forecast the rise of whistleblowers way back in September 2002 (Read this: https://www.travel-impact-newswire.com/2002/09/lets-hear-it-for-whistle-blowers/). Whistleblowers such as Chelsea Manning, Julian Assange and Edward Snowden have paid dearly for trying to make the world more aware of the gradual erosion of global democratic freedoms, the same “freedom and democracy” that the terrorists supposedly hate about the West, as former U.S. president George W. Bush Jr grandiosely told the world. Today, the U.S. government’s growing surveillance and the role of social media networks and telecom companies are under scrutiny. The travel & tourism industry is a major beneficiary of social-media networks, but these are also conduits for racial profiling and privacy violations. What is the industry doing to set up check-and-balance mechanisms?

5. TAX CRACKDOWN ON MULTINATIONALS: The Organisation of Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) and the G20 have embarked upon a project to combat base erosion and profit shifting (BEPS) by multinational corporations. Essentially, this is designed to create “a fairer international tax system” and prevent MNCs from exploiting tax loopholes and stashing money in tax havens. The project aims to “help governments offer increased certainty and predictability to taxpayers, while guarding against unwarranted compliance burdens or restrictions to legitimate cross-border activity.” Multinationals will be required to provide tax administrations with information on revenues, profits, taxes accrued and paid, along with some activity indicators. Developing countries are backing this because of their huge need to raise and mobilise financing for the Post-2015 development agenda. Cash-rich travel & tourism multinationals will be on the watchlist. Many of them will be exposed in the media.

6. THE STATUS OF RANK-AND-FILE WORKERS: The travel & tourism industry claims to be a great job-creator, especially for the rank-and-file. So why does it deny them a voice to share their grievances and concerns? That is about to change. On February 25, the International Trades Union Congress, which represents 176 million workers in 162 countries and territories, announced that it had “reached an understanding” with the UN International Labour Organisation to end a two-year impasse with employer representatives, “based on recognition of the right to take industrial action, backed by explicit recognition from governments of the right to strike, linked to ILO Convention 87 on Freedom of Association.” Sharan Burrow, ITUC General Secretary, was quoted as saying, “Having created the (European economic) crisis, employer groups and some governments were refusing to allow the issue to be taken to the International Court of Justice even though the ILO Constitution says it should be. We’ve now managed to negotiate a solution which protects the fundamental right of workers to take strike action, and allows the ILO to resume fully its work to supervise how governments respect their international labour standards obligations.” What next? Watch this space.

7. THE RICH-POOR INCOME GAP: The World Economic Forum says “redistribution of wealth” is one of the major global challenges. Has travel & tourism contributed to narrowing or widening this gap? It has certainly helped a much better geographical distribution of income. But to what extent has it benefitted the poor? Have poverty-levels been reduced proportionately in the last decades of travel & tourism growth? Are industry working conditions and social welfare benefits up to par? Is there gender equality in terms of wages?

8. SOCIAL ISSUES: Travel & tourism does a lot of economic good and contributes to arts, music, culture and heritage. But it also has a huge social and environmental impact. The industry avoids measuring this. Casinos, expanding worldwide, are major conduits for money-laundering and social problems such as gambling addiction and domestic violence. Alcohol consumption leads to hundreds of drunk-driving casualties on resort islands. Tourists’ per capita water consumption and garbage generation have never been measured. Industry statistics track economic impact and value of tourism ad nauseum, but there are no measurement indicators to track the not so positive side of tourism.

9. CRIMES AGAINST TOURISTS: Increasing number of visitors means a rise in global crime. Every day, thousands of tourists get scammed, defrauded, robbed, murdered, cheated, raped and pickpocketed. Yet, there is not a single set of figures on the scale of this problem. The figures are available but the travel & tourism industry does not want to put them into the public domain for fear that it will take the shine of its glossy veneer. When was the last time that the ITB Convention invited the head of a Tourist Police Unit or Interpol to lecture on the growing scourge of crime against tourists?

10. THE CLASH OF CIVILISATIONS: Samuel Huntington’s famous forecast was once debunked as being irrelevant and impossible in an age of globalisation. But recent political and geopolitical events show it is dangerously close to reality. Religious fanaticism is on the rise worldwide, across all faiths and creeds, including Judaism, Buddhism and Hinduism. It has become a major source of social and ethnic conflict. This too, is not supposed to have happened. Temples, churches, mosques, are the most-visited tourism spots in every country. Visitors marvel at the ‘hardware’ but understand little or nothing about the software. As Dr Rifai said, “Does tourism contribute to the wellbeing of the world, or to its peril?”


The “think-tank” ITB Convention, and all other industry events, ignore these issues at their peril. It is time for them to rethink their content and enrich it by providing alternative perspectives and challenging conventional wisdoms. Indeed, the UNWTO itself needs to convene a global summit of “alternative perspectives” where civil society groups, unionists, consumer rights advocates, environmentalists, anti-alcohol campaigners and promoters of communal harmony can make government officials, CEOs, investors, diplomats and other decision-makers accountable for their actions as well as inactions.

Dr Rifai’s well-crafted and carefully thought out speech is designed to help industry forums break out of their comfort zones as brain-dead mutual admiration clubs of people preaching to the converted. Accountability is a two-way street. So far, it has been widely, and mistakenly, assumed that only the rich, famous or powerful have the answers, and are part of the solution. The perilous state of the world indicates that they may be a part of the problem.

With his game-changing speech, Dr Rifai has opened both windows of opportunity as well as a Pandora’s box. The genie is out of the bottle. It’s not going to go back in.