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3 Jun, 2022

Will PATA’s new hybrid chairman raise a Voice for the Voiceless?

Bangkok – If hybrid meetings, cars and work-places are now the “in” thing, why not hybrid leaders? In the post-Covid era, the new chairman of PATA could well be the first of that generation.

Peter Semone was elected to lead this once formidable travel institution in the midst of a perfect storm. The pandemic is ending but a war is raging in Europe and a Clash of Civilizations is looming. This month, the UN Sustainable Development Goals will hit the midway point of their 15-year timeframe, and are clearly heading for failure. Unprecedented changes are revolutionising the way the world works, lives, eats, holidays and operates.

That is the crossroads at which PATA and indeed the entire Asia-Pacific Travel & Tourism industry stands. Mr Semone is well aware of them. He has outlined a roadmap for his two-year term to end with a truly “New Normal” and not just another rehash of the “Old Abnormal”. That is what will determine his place in history.

Professionally and personally, Mr Semone has a unique set of hybrid credentials. His Cornell degree gives him the right educational qualifications. His experience covers a vast multi-sectoral turf. He began his career in Bali and then worked with a tour company in Bangkok. He worked within PATA as vice president in the early 2000s when PATA was heading downhill. He then became a consultant, supervising projects in land-locked Laos and sea-locked Timor-Leste, two of the world’s poorest countries, both emerging from years of conflict and pursuing the promise of Travel & Tourism in their nation-rebuilding blueprints.

Personally, he is a product of American-German parents, married to a Balinese Hindu and fluent in Bahasa Indonesia. He witnessed the 1997-1998 political upheaval in that vast, Muslim-majority, archipelago country. By age, he straddles the incoming and outgoing demographic groups. Most importantly perhaps, he is the father of two hybrid teen-age children — the future generation.

This pedigree makes him potentially the right person in the right job at the right time.

In my congratulatory message to him, I reminded him that PATA, which moved its HQ from the United States to Asia to take advantage of the rise of the Asian Century, had self-destructed while the rest of the region was rising. That history lesson is necessary to learn from past mistakes. In the PATA heydays of the 1990s, a rising tide was lifting all boats. In the first decade of the 21st century, as the storm clouds gathered, the so-called “captains of the industry” lost control of the PATA ship.

In his campaign pitch (read the full text below), Mr Semone said, “Now is the time to rethink tourism in Asia Pacific and ‘build forward better’ through an intelligent pathway that balances economic growth with socio-cultural and environmental considerations. PATA is central to this narrative. We can leverage the PATA brand and the power of our diverse membership spanning across the public and private sectors. Together, our PATA family can co-create a more sustainable tomorrow for our region and industry.” He added, “I believe in good governance and transparency; collaboration and partnership; and an inclusive approach that allow all voices to be heard.”


Realistically speaking, none of that rhetoric will materialise unless and until the cascade of “external shocks” abates. They are the underlying causes of devastation and disruption in tourism, be they environmental, economic, geopolitical, natural disasters or health pandemics. Stormy seas are not conducive for a smooth sailing. Geopolitical crises create safety and security concerns, trigger visa restrictions and transportation cutbacks. Economic crises lead to spending curbs and reduced travel. Health pandemics and global warming also take their toll.

All these crises have a source, a starting point, especially the man-made economic and geopolitical crises. In addressing them, the global Travel & Tourism leadership is sticking to the traditional comfort zones, and focussing on the symptoms, not the cause. Precisely because the treatment is flawed, the cure remains elusive. Industry “futurists, thought-leaders and visionaries” often bemoan these multiple crises. Then they sit on the sidelines by claiming, wrongly, that these forces are outside their control.

This is because the Travel & Tourism leadership has scant respect for history. A century ago, the industry emerged from the ashes of the two catastrophic world wars as a force for promoting peace and understanding. That was the REAL “New Normal”, the REAL opportunity to “Build Back Better” in the post-war era. Only later did it become an economic and job-creation force. The common-sense reasoning then was that peace would lead to travel, and jobs would follow. Today, Travel & Tourism is the world’s biggest service industry, but its commensurate contribution to peace and stability is zilch.

Can PATA’s hybrid chairman plug that fundamental gap? Will he? And if so, how?

PATA has always claimed to be the “Voice of Asia-Pacific tourism”. In that spirit, Mr Semone has promised “an inclusive approach that allow all voices to be heard”. To say exactly what? Will those voices be allowed to Speak Truth To Power? Will they strive to confront the causes of disruption? How can they be heard and heeded by global leaders?

That is where Mr Semone’s American nationality becomes an asset. The United States, the self-proclaimed leader of the “free world”, has long lost its moral compass. Militarily and economically, it rules the roost. American corporations and oligarchs are more powerful than the entire continent of Africa. Politically and judicially, the U.S. is above the law. It is feared but no longer universally respected. Its might-is-right policies and actions are a source of intense global anger and frustration. This is a root cause of global instability, and is not sustainable.

As an American, Mr Semone is best placed to voice some core messages to fellow American power-brokers in government, multinational corporations and the financial community. Lurching from one man-made crisis to the next is no longer an option. Those responsible must be held accountable.

No global Travel & Tourism leader dares to Speak Truth To Power. As the Covid pandemic fades, the buzzwords are “Reopen, Recover, Resilience.” But the Ukraine conflict shows that the next crisis is already here, and likely to get worse. In which case, PATA’s business-recovery events and forecasting reports will all be a waste of time, money and effort. The world needs at least one decade of uninterrupted calm, peace and stability. Like Mother Nature, the resilient greenery of Travel & Tourism will recover and refresh itself if kept free of floods and man-made destruction.

To make that happen, Mr Semone has to raise the Voice of PATA where it is most needed — in the corridors of power. For sure, he can count on the support of one very high-level political ally, Timor-Leste’s President José Ramos-Horta, the former independence leader and Nobel Peace Prize winner who was returned for a second term as president in the same month that Mr Semone was confirmed as PATA Chairman. Was that a coincidence or a Message from Providence?

In 10 years, Mr Semone’s two children will be in their 20s and Mr Semone himself will be in his 60s. When he raises PATA’s Voice, it should not be the ventriloquist voice of the Mastercards and the Marriotts but that of the emerging generation of children, the mom-and-pop shops and the low-income tourism workers of Bali, Laos and Timor-Leste. They, and not the PATA members, are his real stakeholders. Their voices are never heard in PATA travel forums nor media interviews. They most need the help, and expect their leaders to defend their interests and livelihoods without fear or favour, not just advance their personal careers by pandering to the gallery.

If Mr Semone can rise to the occasion, his place in history will be assured. Other industry leaders may well follow. Only then will Travel & Tourism deliver on its core purpose, in the words of former UN World Tourism Organisation Secretary General Taleb Rifai, to make the world a better place.

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