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23 Mar, 2020

Masterpiece Earth Summit 1992 speech by ex-UNWTO chief shows how Travel & Tourism bungled the agenda

Bangkok – The UN World Tourism Organization (UNWTO) last week held a Global Tourism Crisis Committee meeting in preparation for the launch of a global guide for recovery. Some important-looking people were shown conducting their first virtual meeting. The press release promised a set of recommendations for recovery is to be released “in the coming days.”

It said that these recommendations “will be complemented by a dynamic component aimed at engaging with innovators across the world through an innovation challenge centred on tourism’s response. Launched with the support of WHO, this challenge will identify new ideas that can be implemented to help tourism return to sustainable growth.”

The most innovative thing the UNWTO can do is to disband this Global Tourism Crisis Committee and delve into its own archives to see how many useless conferences have been convened, useless reports issued and useless resolutions passed to advance the cause of a supposedly sustainable tourism sector.

Mr Antonio Enrique Savignac


Then, I recommend that all crisis committee members read one of the most brilliant speeches ever made by a UN Secretary General, (reproduced below). It was delivered at the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio de Janiero by the late Antonio Enrique Savignac, a former Mexican Tourism Minister who headed the UNWTO between 1990-1996. A charismatic and brilliant leader, an exceptionally humble human being and a world-class communicator, Mr Savignac is credited with saving the then rudderless organisation from near-death.

I was fortunate to have known him well.

His speech marked a watershed in the history of global Travel & Tourism, especially because it was delivered at a landmark event in the global sustainability movement. Mr Savignac identified both the enormous potential of Travel & Tourism, as well as the threats to its existence.

It was a “Global Warning” par excellence, even more so because it was issued way back in 1992.

Today, the UNWTO has to simply use it as a checklist against which to evaluate the successes and failures of the global Travel & Tourism industry at large — the mistakes it has made, the lessons it has failed to learn, the words of warning it has failed to heed — in the three decades since that speech was made.

The set of “recovery recommendations” will write itself.

Travel & Tourism does not need yet another crisis recovery document. The industry knows well how to get back on its feet. What it badly needs is a serious and realistic evaluation of its own track record, warts and all.

As I looked closely at the line-up of the important people on the committee, I asked myself: What do they really know about the history of global crises and their impact on Travel & Tourism? As a new paradigm has clearly dawned, would they better off addressing that blind spot?

I have meticulously preserved Mr. Savignac’s speech, and many other treasure-trove documents, over the years. I knew a day would come when Travel & Tourism would pay the price of its myopia.

That day has now arrived.

Mr. Savignac’s powerful and insightful words could serve as the basis of a new Travel & Tourism Magna Carta for the rest of this decade and beyond.


Address by Mr. Antonio Enriquez Savignac, Secretary-General of the World Tourism Organization, to the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development

(Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, 4 June 1992)

Distinguished delegates, Ladies and gentlemen,

People from every corner of the world are gathered here in this exceptional city of Rio de Janeiro, responding to the call of the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development.

We are meeting in the name of the environment, yet our very presence here also makes this a major tourist event.

For the World Tourism Organization, the “Earth Summit” is therefore already a success because it has brought together more than 10,000 participants in the peaceful exercise of tourism while pursuing a global agenda for the environment. As the Secretary-General of the World Tourism Organization, I can take satisfaction in that fact.

That is the essence of tourism. It involves movement of persons, not only from physical locations, but also from fixed attitudes and assumption, towards a consensus position that is at the heart of the international negotiations which led up to the present Earth Summit.

The World Tourism Organization, WTO, is a small, specialized organization with a big mission.

It is entrusted by the international community and the United Nations System with the promotion and development of domestic and international tourism.

Tourism is a product of peoples’ natural curiosity, their desire for recreation, and their interest to see how others live. It is rooted deep in the human spirit as a universal aspiration, and is a catalyst of dialogue and understanding. Present-day mass tourism, a recent phenomenon, is possible because of shorter working hours, leave with pay, faster means of transport and communications, and above all, the freedom to travel.

Measured by any yardstick, tourism is arguably the world’s biggest industry and one of the few with a positive North-South cash- flow. Last year there were nearly 450 million international arrivals which generated 261 billion US dollars in receipts. International travel is, moreover, only the tip of the iceberg. Yet, even more important, there are about ten domestic trips for every international arrival. Tourism is thus an industry of planetary scale, a force to be reckoned with at this Earth Summit.

At WTO we have long believed in the peaceful co-existence of tourism and the environment. We can express this in three propositions:

(1) Travel promotes environmental awareness:

(2) Well managed tourism is a good friend of the environment; and,

(3) A successful tourism industry needs a high quality environment.

Looking at proposition one, travel fosters awareness of the smallness of our planet, heightens consciousness of the Earth’s finite resources and creates a felling of solidarity with the peoples of the world. After visiting unique areas of the world, tourists become better aware of the fragility of the environment.

Addressing proposition number two, we, at WTO, recognize that tourism must be planned, channelled and managed so that it respects and does not overwhelm the environment.

In 1972 at Stockholm, in 1979 at Madrid, when WTO created an Environment Committee, in 1989 at the Hague Interparliamentary Conference on Tourism, WTO Member States stressed that travel must take place so that it helps maintain and protect natural and man-made attractions while allowing wide access to the natural environment and the cultural heritage. In accepting this challenge, they resolved that WTO should act as a clearing-house for information shared between nations on how to make tourism and environment goals mutually supportive.

Developing new, softer forms of leisure; establishing and respecting carrying capacity standards; staggering tourist flows in time and space; creating awareness among and training potential partners in the industry – these are all ways in which tourism can be developed sustainably in a world in search of sustainable development.

Tourism has immense potential to use its leverage as a positive force for sustainability. It has not always used this leverage well, having caused environmental problems through over-development and poor planning. but this young industry is ready to learn from past experience – both good and bad. And a glance at today’s world will surely reveal that it is not those areas visited by tourists which are at greatest risk, but rather those where tourists cannot travel, because of war, disease, drought or natural disasters.

Turning to the third proposition, tourism is extremely sensitive to the environment. it depends on a clean, safe and well-managed planet. But the resources on which tourism depends are not actually under the control of the travel industry. They are managed by others. So tourism is, as it were, at the end of the global industrial food-chain, dependent on other sectors to maintain and conserve the resources on which it is based.

Tourism has therefore formed natural partnerships to promote the environmental protection policies in its interest. itself a smokeless industry, tourism is a big enough contributor to global wealth to have the potential to be a major player in solutions to environmental problems.

To save our common heritage, The Earth, one of the greatest challenges of this Rio Conference is to determine to what extent we should rely on the “invisible hand’ of the market-place and to what extent a globally regulatory policy is necessary.

The demand for a healthy, protected environment is a force which is only just beginning to be measured. If public and private sectors do not respect the integrity and the authenticity of tourist receiving countries, then consumers may yet oblige them to do so. Tourists themselves can enforce the environmental preservation we seek. They can do so by demanding new tourist products with a strong environmental content; sports-oriented leisure holidays, cultural tourism, ecotourism and adventure tourism, visits to parks and protected areas, among many others.

Agricultural and local handicraft production as well as cultural traditions, such as folk music and dance, can also be revived, preserved and stimulated by tourism whereas they would face an uncertain future without the receptive market tourism provides.

Led by their customers, tour operators, airlines and hotels which yesterday aimed for all-out growth, are today increasingly careful not to destroy what is the basis of their own survival.

In the long-term, the protection of the environment in tourist destinations will not take place against the tide of the market but rather in the same direction as that tide.

Thus, the concerns of consumers, the travel trade and resident populations will outweigh those of individuals who saw in tourism only a short-term, speculative opportunity.

On behalf of WTO’s 112 Member governments and 171 affiliates, I pledge our commitment to implementing Agenda 21 within the global tourism industry. WTO Members’ support for the UNCED preparatory process was steadfast and resolute. Now we stand ready to help you transform recommendations into reality. Together with UNEP and industry partners, WTO commits inself here and now to a comprehensive programme to develop tools and methods to implement sustainable tourism worldwide.

In the Manila Declaration on World Tourism of 1980, WTO proclaimed the right for people to discover the world about them.

If we have the right to live in a protected environment – and that is the aim of our Conference – surely we also have the right should apply also to our children and our grand-children. They too should have the opportunity to enjoy bathing on safe, clean beaches; to take part in winter sports; to explore woodland and forests; to enjoy the tranquility of lakeland scenery or breath pure mountain air.

The world which this Conference has been mandated to protect must also be a world that one can visit.