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11 Sep, 2017

R.I.P. Inder Sharma – The Indian stalwart who brought China into PATA

Bangkok – Much has been written in praise of Mr Inder Sharma, the Indian travel & tourism stalwart who passed away on Sept 5 at the age of 86. The award-winning chairman of SITA World Travel was indeed one of India’s most eminent personalities – a thorough professional of impeccable integrity and formidable intellect, equally comfortable engaging the media or entertaining political leaders.

Of the many achievements attributed to him, perhaps the least mentioned has been his most important. In 1992-93, during his one-year stint at President of PATA, Mr Sharma personally indulged in some quiet, behind-the-scenes diplomacy to bring China into the PATA membership, a move that elevated the Association’s standing on the global stage.

In the early 1990s, China was widely recognised as a rapidly-emerging economic power and inbound-outbound tourism giant. International travel industry associations such as PATA could not ignore this awakening.

Mr Sharma knew that bringing China into the fold would not be easy. The Beijing government first demanded that Taiwan, calling itself Republic of China, should be expelled from the Association. After Mr Sharma’s low-key visits to Beijing and Taiwan, and meetings with top tourism brass in both countries, it was agreed to tone that down. Taiwan could stay, but its name had to be changed in all PATA literature and documentation to “Chinese Taipei.”

Taiwan, some of whose executives were amongst the founding members of PATA, took great exception to the hugely controversial move. But the protests came to nought. The move was approved by the PATA board by a vote of 26 in favour, 11 abstentions and one opposed. It was ratified by the PATA AGM in May 1993 in Honolulu.

The text of the Board resolution said as follows: “Whereas the PATA Board of Directors acknowledges with deep appreciation the valuable and mutually rewarding relationship between PATA and PATA members in the Republic of China, over the past several years, and whereas in the intervening years there have been significant political and economic changes in the Pacific Asia area, and whereas the Board of Directors recognises these evolving realities, therefore the Board resolves that all members in the Republic of China, be designated in PATA records and publications as being members from Chinese Taipei.”

I was following the story closely at the time, but Mr Sharma exhorted me to secrecy on the grounds that any media coverage during the sensitive negotiations stage could set back his efforts.

Although his request caught me on the horns of a major dilemma, I acquiesced. Mr Sharma promised to give me exclusive rights to the entire story later.

All the details did emerge publicly after China became a PATA member. The country hosted its first PATA annual conference in April 1997, exactly 20 years ago, and has since gone on to host many more PATA events over the years.

Mr Sharma’s historic role is equally important in today’s geopolitical context. India and China are traditionally seen as economic, political and military adversaries, but this is a fine example of a well-intentioned Indian travel personality who had the foresight and vision to recognise the inevitable and, perhaps more important, the benefits of friendship and cooperation between the two Asian giants.

The Chinese, too, recognised Mr Sharma’s role in making that possible.

In April 1993, just before stepping down from his one-year PATA Presidency, Mr Sharma gave me an exclusive interview, in which he humbly called China’s entrance into PATA “a routine matter.” In my capacity as the Asia-Pacific region’s leading travel & tourism historian, I have retained the full text of that interview which follows below:

Q. What have you enjoyed most about the PATA Presidency?

A. My interaction with our membership in 30 countries and 26 Chapter meetings that I have attended. The challenge to meet the aspirations of such a varied membership is very satisfying. The most enjoyable part of it was the goodwill that PATA enjoys in the travel industry inspite of occasional hiccups.

Q. What did you set out to do when you gained the presidency, and are you satisfied with its results? Was China’s admission your stellar achievement?

A. My objective was to continue the good work done by my predecessors. I had no illusions that during one year one can change the course of an Association dramatically. I believe that an Association while being proactive must not make frequent changes. One of my objectives was that the Advisory Council should be reactivated and I am thankful to Doug Fyfe and his members for having done so. The other objective included the Long Range Business Plan and establishment of N.E. Asia representation.

China’s admission to PATA is welcome but I think it is more of a routine matter than a stellar achievement. Having China in PATA makes good sense but what makes equally good sense is the continued cooperation from our members from Chinese Taipei.

Q. What do you think PATA needs to do to adjust to the changing travel industry environment worldwide?

A. What PATA needs today is to reach out. We are constantly talking amongst ourselves and there is a great need to think on strategic issues and to interact with society in general. Direction 2000 is aimed towards that and I am sure my successors will make greater efforts towards reaching out to the world at large.

Q. Is PATA doing enough to get its name out among national political and economic policy-makers in the Asia-Pacific. If not, what should be done?

A. No Association or its officers should ever be satisfied with what they are doing to get its name out among national, political and economic policy makers. So I am not satisfied and that is why my emphasis that PATA has to reach out.

Q You’ve held presidencies of various international groupings over the last few years — which one has been the most self-satisfying, and why?

A. I’m not going to answer that; surely you do not want me to be in the doghouse with so many good friends in the industry. Each one of my experiences was extremely rewarding, educative and satisfying. It enriched my life.

Q. What changes do you see taking place in the industry and what are the issues affecting these changes?

A. The recession in some of the generating markets particularly USA, Europe and to some extent in Japan. This will affect the rate of growth of tourist arrivals in Pacific Asia. We will continue to have a faster rate of growth than the rest of the world but our overall rate is likely to come down slightly. The technology has made our world a global village. This will on one side trigger demand for travel but equally bad news will travel so fast that unstable destinations would be adversely affected. The enlarged scope of CRS systems may affect the distribution networks. Though a smiling human face would continue to influence travel decisions yet the third and fourth time traveller is likely to approach the principals directly.

With 51 percent of world traffic predicted for our Region by the year 2005 we would have congestion at airports and airlines. Facilitation at airports would be paramount and countries will be left out from future hubs and spokes either due to congestion or due to poor facilitation.

Culturally and environmentally Tourism will have to be more responsible and will have to get involved in protecting the two as they are vital for the very survival of future Tourism.

As regards the rising costs I do not think it is true because in real terms travel is becoming cheaper to many destinations. Those destinations would succeed more who adopt a proactive marketing strategy anticipating the needs of their customers. More and more destinations will have to become more specific in their appeal and not try to be all things to all people. Issues related with health and terrorism would become very crucial. The development of human resources both in quantity and quality would have to be tackled on emergency basis. Inspite of some of the challenges that the remaining years of this century poses one hopes that this Industry would convert them to opportunities.

Q. What are your thoughts on the future of tourism to India?

Tourism to India is bound to grow. There is a likelihood that with the current liberalisation in economic policies Tourism will finally find a niche in the country’s export efforts. With the renewed efforts of the Government, Tourism is likely to be shifted to the front burner and attain its rightful place as an economically viable Industry. The private enterprise would now have relatively less shackles to contend with and in the next few years one is likely to witness new initiatives.


The intensity of the controversy

This report I filed in April 1993 provides a better understanding of the depth of the challenge Mr Sharma had to overcome in facilitating China’s entry into PATA.

The entrance of China into PATA has been widely welcomed. But it involved changing the name of Taiwan to ‘Chinese Taipei’ in all PATA documentation. Understandably, Taiwan was miffed over what it considered to be an infringement of its identity.

During the Board of Directors meeting in Monaco last March 2-3, at which the issue was discussed, board member Stanley Yen lodged a protest which he wanted recorded verbatim in the minutes. The following is a full text of his comments, printed here so that the country’s position is clearly known to all PATA members.

The later part of his comments are particularly pertinent to the sentiments expressed yesterday by Baroness Margaret Thatcher in her keynote speech.

“Thank you Mr Chairman. I think it has been a very, very difficult issue for all of us from the Republic of China. In one way we see the changes and we see how important it is for PATA to be able to continue its function as a representative in an entire area of the Pacific Asia region.

“But, we are also very troubled when the founding members and loyal supporters of this organisation are challenged to change its name, whatever the reason might be, in this case being to allow another member to come in. I know this issue started from Osaka and has not been a very pleasant experience for any of us. For us we certainly believe in and welcome any new member who wishes to join PATA. But we also know that this is an apolitical organisation. This organisation should only look at the interests of tourism and to now change the name of one of our countries certainly opens the way for future abuse of other countries.

We would like to clearly mention that we have no intention of blocking any potential member of PATA and certainly we welcome anybody who is eligible to be a Member to join this organisation to work together hand in hand. But I think we set a very dangerous precedent today if we allow these changes.

With all this consideration we do not want to block the way, or to influence or stop anybody who comes in, but we do feel that it is very unfair to be re-designated our name. So may I request, upon my discussions with some of our Government members that we would consider to re-adjust our own name for the sake of PATA and the organisation, to be addressed as Taipei China, without a comma. Thank you”.

The Chairman, Mr Inder Sharma acknowledged the concerns expressed by Mr Stanley Yen and paid tribute to the valuable and mutually rewarding relationship between PATA and PATA members in Taiwan.

Mr Yen further addressed the Board. “I would like to repeat once again that it is not our wish to change our name. It has been a debate among ourselves for quite some time: Should we compromise ourselves? We do not want to make any members feel that we are blocking the way for somebody to enter into this organisation, but I think you are aware that it was a precondition which was placed before the application of the People’s Republic of China to change our name which was a major consideration.

I know this time it is not the case, but I still feel it is very important to show our good will. We discussed various possibilities with our Government and we certainly feel we have to show our very sincere willingness to cooperate with this organisation and Taipei China, without a comma, since it is a compromise, is a more acceptable name. This is how we would like to be addressed in the future.”

Upon the resolution being adopted by the Board, Mr Yen continued. “Mr Chairman, Ladies and Gentlemen: Over the years I have on behalf of my country, the Republic of China, contributed numerous efforts toward the attainment of PATA’s goals and objectives in promoting tourism to our member countries. Over the years I have also been convinced of the apolitical nature of the organisation and the brotherhood and fellowship that has bonded us together and made many of our accomplishments possible. Yet today I have been told that a ruling has been made to change the designation of our country’s membership, with little regard to the fact that we have protested strongly and shall continue to protest against such a ruling.

I feel that it is a very sad day when PATA has to give in to pressures imposed by a would-be member while disregarding the support and loyalty of a standing member. I shall reiterate what we, the Republic of China, have believed all along; that we welcome the addition of any new member to this organisation who can bring progress and prosperity to our fellow members, provided we do not, under duress, ask existing members to revise its identity to accommodate the addition of these new members. We firmly believe that this would not only create animosity among members in good standing but also sets an undesirable example that would open the organisation to abuse in the future.

I ask that my statement today be recorded in the minutes of the PATA meeting and that it be made known to all members of PATA that the Republic of China a member of PATA in good standing wishes to be known by the name we registered with PATA since the organisation was founded and to address us otherwise would be extremely inappropriate.

It has been a very, very hard and difficult battle for myself and for a lot of fellow members in my country. I couldn’t tell you why I feel so emotional. One of the reasons, and I want everybody to understand, I am treating all of you as my fellow friends. I now am not talking officially.

Taiwan, Republic of China, has always been a very difficult country. We ourselves have escaped from Communist occupation in China. We are looking for freedom.

That is how we all landed in Taiwan. We call ourselves a lighthouse of the freedoms for our people, our brothers, our family, our relatives on the other side. I, myself have relatives who are there, a lot of them are still there, they have suffered for over 40 years. I had the opportunity to visit them not long ago. What I really feel is that the free world is giving way to allow a country to continue to play their roles in controlling their people — controlling their people the way they want to.

As in the way it happened with Joan Foss of the Tienanmen situations. One day people will understand the need to keep Taiwan as its own identity. The wishes of the people of China will mean a lot for this world. If one day Taiwan becomes part of China under Communist rule, that will be the end of this world. I ask why cannot people stand on our side and let the world understand, allow your people to have democracy, we will not compromise with it.

We also understand the reality people talk about. What happened in Tienanmen, a lot of people felt it was an American influence. A lot of students study in the United States and bring back democratic ideas into the country. But do not forget almost one year before that, Taiwan, the Republic of China, first opened our doors to allow our people visit China. That impact probably went way beyond what you can imagine because suddenly the people in the People’s Republic of China realised that their brothers and sisters, their family members, because they had separated and were living under a democratic world, it had made an enormous difference.

We gave them that hope, we gave them the reasons to fight for their freedom.

I very much want to make the organisation feel, we are not a ‘bad boy’ trying to prevent allowing another member enter. We know China and the People’s Republic of China are both playing important roles but I think it is also important that you, my friends, know that in the bottom of my heart this is how I feel.”