Report on UNWTO Session on Tourism and Travel Industry at the 4th United Nations Alliance of Civilizations Forum

During the 4th United Nations Alliance of Civilizations (UNAOC) Forum in Doha, Qatar in December 2011, the United Nations World Tourism Organization (UNWTO) convened a break out session on the “Tourism Industry and Travel – Celebrating diversity, linking cultures and promoting dialogue between civilization,”

Every people and every place possess a unique culture. Experiencing different ways of life, discovering new food and customs and visiting cultural sites have become leading motivations for people to travel. As a result, tourism and travel activities are a crucial source of revenue and job creation. With millions of people travelling the world each year, never before have so many people been to so many places, nor been so exposed to other cultures. This interaction between individuals and communities, and their diverse cultures, can lead to tolerance, respect and mutual understanding- the building blocks for a more peaceful world. Yet tourism growth brings serious responsibilities to minimize any potentially negative impacts on the cultural assets and heritage of mankind.

Throughout the discussion the speakers Mr. Taleb Rifai, Secretary-General, World Tourism Organization, Mr. Najib Balala, Minister of Tourism of Kenya, Mr. Abulfas Garayev, Minister of Culture and Tourism of Azerbaijan, Ms. Rosalind Newslands, President of the World Federation of Tourist Guide Association, Mr. Dawid de Villiers, Chairman of the World Committee on Tourism Ethics, Mr. Martin Brackenbury, Representative of ABTA and Mr. Martijn van de Veen, representing the International Student Identity Card Association and the World Youth Student and Educational (WYSE) Travel Confederation discussed how the tourism and travel sector, as an economic sector based on human interaction, exchange and dialogue, could find ways to allow more direct contact between tourists/travellers and local people and to open and stimulate broader discussions among them.

In his introductory remarks Mr. Dawid de Villiers, Chairman of the World Committee on Tourism Ethics, who moderated the discussion, highlighted the importance that new thinking and innovative approaches are urgently needed to face the growing challenges in vital areas. He stressed the importance of the tourism industry which should be a driving force and could play a vital role in linking cultures. He underlined the role of the Global Code of Ethics for Tourism, a set of universal values, principles and standards which shall guide tourism’s development so that it is sustainable, ethical and responsible.

“The main question we need to address is simply, can tourism make a difference and help to establish a better world – and how to contribute to that goal.” Mr. de Villiers sees three major inter-connected challenges where tourism and travel are linked:

  1. building peace, still too many countries and regions people live in fear. Authoritarian regimes, political fanatics and religious extremists have destroyed the freedom and peace of millions;
  2. huge environmental challenges, there are clear and irrefutable evidence that our present lifestyles and consumption patterns are causing dangerous harm to the fragile ecosystems that support life on Earth;
  3. combat poverty, which constitute a real threat to long term peace, stability and freedom.

He believes one answer is to be found in restoring respect for and a commitment to ethical values. “There is no society, community, culture or religion without a tradition of values that direct its members to do what is right and to reject what is wrong. We need to rekindle a new awareness of the importance of those values that stood the test of time. We should encourage debate and dialog on this subject, exchange views and share experiences.” he concluded.

Dr. Taleb Rifai, Secretary-General of the World Tourism Organization (UNWTO), stressed the importance that tourism is more than just figures and that the true story behind the numbers are the millions of conversations and interactions that take place every day as visitors and host communities come together. Through tourism, millions of people are brought closer every day.

This interaction is at the heart of UNWTO’s mandate and at the heart of the work of Alliance of Civilizations. Tourism plays role in breaking down barriers across cultures and fostering tolerance, respect and mutual understanding and contributes to cultural diversity. “The linkage between UNWTO, the tourism sector and the Alliance therefore is natural and furthermore one of strategic value.”

Mr. Rifai emphasized that in the search for new strategies tourism and travel, which is a human activity with an impact on today’s life through spurring dialogue and cultural exchange has the potential to link cultures, prompt understanding foster dialogue and build peace.

Mr. Rifai stressed the important role of tourism as an economic activity. Tourism while generating economic value is contributing to narrowing the gap between the rich and poor and creating opportunities for the local host communities. It’s now a force that’s trying to counterbalance the disparity of income,” Dr Rifai said citing that such development in the tourism industry had helped a lot in generating revenues for poorer countries to improve their economies and “try to balance the gap” in the past 20 years.

Minister Balala, Minister of Tourism of Kenya, highlighted in his speech the importance of a harmonious and peaceful society which contributes to the development of any country.

He placed special emphasizes on the power of youth which represents the future of his country  Kenya (52% of the population of Kenya is under 20 years), and the extremely important role of women. The empowerment of women shall play and important part of the country economic development. This realization, he said, necessitated the anchoring of the empowerment not only of women, but of all the minority groups in the new Kenyan constitution.

“Tourism is a tool to breaking barriers between communities” he said, adding that tourism brings understanding and tolerance and contributes to peace.

As a Minister of Tourism of Kenya he emphasized the role of governments in recognizing the power of tourism as a tool in the economic development and in the promotion of the country’s prosperity. He indicated that such recognition is necessary and needs further attention since not all governments look at tourism as powerful policy tool.

As one of the most relevant problem visitors and travellers are facing in today’s tourism is the question of travel facilitation such as VISA issues. These issues are playing a big obstacle in the daily life of the tourists. Mr. Balala mentioned that in the World Travel Market Ministerial summit those questions played a major discussion topic, and ministers realized the importance and urgency for finding a solution.

As final remark Minister Balala pointed out the important role of the travel advisories, mentioning that several times they are giving unrealistic information for travellers creating barriers to travel.

Minister Garayev, Minister of Culture and Tourism of Azerbaijan, said that the presence of the UNWTO in this event and its role inside the Alliance of Civilizations proves that cultural issues are strongly linked to tourism. He stressed and underlined the significance of the direct interactions and the personal contacts– tourists will eat, see, listen, smell etc. – between travellers and the host, local communities.

Another important point he said is the role of governments in education. It is extremely relevant that education should correctly directed, ethical issues emphasized, cultural, religious, historical topics and differences rightly understood and respected. High professionalism is important towards ethics and culture. He announced that Azerbaijan will host the World Forum on Intercultural dialogue in 2013 in Baku.

The role of tourism agencies shall be strengthened, in the sense of providing the right information to travellers.

He agreed with the views of Minister Balala with regard to the role of governments in recognizing the power of tourism. He said, “It is extremely difficult to tell governments what the power of tourism is”.

The Secretary-General of the International Student Identity Card Association Mr. Martijn van de Veen underlined the importance of intercultural dialogue between youth and its role in providing better understanding and avoiding war. Those values were the driving forces behind the creation of the organization after the Second World War, and are valid now more than ever.

He underlined that students and youth tend to spend their money directly in the local economies, with local suppliers rather than multinational corporations, having, not only a more positive and direct impact on the local economies but also engaging into direct contact with the local communities therefore enhancing mutual understanding and increasing the intercultural dialogue.

Mr. Van de Veen said “This shows that investing in increased travel opportunities for youth and students to travel not only will contribute to intercultural understanding, but also represents a healthy economic investment in itself.”

He called governments to invest more into youth. An increased recognition and acceptance of the endorsed ISIC card by governments, institutions and other companies will lead to more opportunities for youth and student travellers to keep promoting that intercultural dialogue.

“Because, in very few years those young travellers will be the tourist of the future with the same ethics of responsibility and respect for the culture they visit. It is important to help them to visit your country providing them with the necessary benefits that will strengthen tourism´s role in promoting mutual understanding and enhance worldwide cultural exchange” concluded the Secretary-General of the International Student Identity Card Association.

Mr. Martin Brackenbury, focused on the direct interactions between tourists and the local communities. To foster intercultural dialogue and understanding, it is first helpful to separate out categories of tourists that have different motives for traveling and different expectations when they travel:

  • Some travel for the specific purpose of interacting with other cultures and trying to understand something of the people. They are open and willing to learn, youth travel is one of best examples. (active participation, interactions with the local communities, exchange programmes, students trips). Failure occurs there where the visited ones are unaware, unable and/or unwilling to respond effectively to the visitor, therefore preparatory work in this context would be useful.
  • Some travel to see specific sights (natural, cultural). Their purpose is not interaction, but interaction occurs during the course of their tour. The interaction is mostly with guides, coach drivers, hotel staff, taxi drivers,   waiters, shopkeepers, and others providing services to tourists.
  • The most difficult and complicated category is the ones that travel for relaxation, sun and see since the interactions are strictly limited. The media can and shall play an important role to provide the mos- t relevant information upon arrival, as well as the ones receiving the visitors directly in order to raise awareness on ethical issues which shall then help in reducing potential resentments of local communities towards this kind of visitors.
  • Some people travel for business. In this case relationships and interactions are essential. Without mutual trust no business can be done.
  • Some travel for education located in other cultures. Part of education should be openness towards the values and ethics of other cultures, and could be usefully included in the curricula of educational institutions.

In his conclusion Mr. Brackenbury indicated that different cultures are coming into contact all the time on an increasing scale. “This in itself is an important reason why an understanding of cultures other than our own has become essential.“

Ms. Rosalind Newslands was trying to find answers from the tour guides point of view and on how tour guides could contribute to cultural understanding and linking and reaching cultures and communities.

She emphasized that most of the times the only reference point for tourists are tour guides. They are the first and sometimes the only representation of the population a visitor will meet. Visitors are engaging and interacting with them, or looking for relevant information regarding the country they are visiting. Tourist guides show examples, provide memories which might have positive or a negative implications on the place visited. In addition the role of local tour guides is essential since they are not only showing the local natural or cultural sites and attractions but also contributing to a better cultural understanding. Thus, it is important to ensure that tourist guides are recognized as the “ambassadors” of a region and the countries they are operating.

Therefore the professional training and education of the tour guides in this respect is extremely important and crucial. Education, professionalism, the relevant knowledge of the history, culture, religious and ritual sites of the countries is all indispensable.

Hence, the network of international trainers, and a code of conduct of guides are absolutely necessary.

Conclusions:

  • Tourism can play a leading role in international and national agendas when searching for new strategies and tools in fostering development and contributing to a better cultural understanding and to peace building efforts around the world.
  • Tourism and Travel has the power to enlighten people, broaden their horizons, enrich their lives, create employment and contribute to a climate of tolerance, respect and mutual understanding. It is understood that a dialogue between visitors and travellers can bridge the divides between people and foster respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms.
  • Respect for and commitment to ethical values in all aspects in general and in tourism and travel in particular play an increasingly important role in ensuring that tourism contributes to a better intercultural understanding. The further strengthening and implementation of the Global Code of Ethics for Tourism must be a priority for all stakeholders in the field of tourism.
  • The need for new thinking and innovative solutions when considering the growing number of challenges in the field of tourism with increasing numbers of travellers and tourists is recognized. In this context it is also important to further stimulate work in the field of fostering intercultural dialogue in order to contribute to the best extent possible to the creation of a more peaceful world.
  • Education and awareness raising among all tourism stakeholders on the role of a responsible tourism and its potential in fostering intercultural dialogue must be further enhanced on a global basis.
  • Education and awareness raising among visitors and local communities on the differences in cultures on both sides can play an important role in further fostering mutual understanding and linking cultures.
  • Youth travel is recognized as a most powerful tool in linking cultures and thus relevant stakeholders shall further invest in the facilitation of travels of young people, such as e.g. student exchange programmes.
  • To put special efforts in providing more trainings to youth to better understand their own cultures in order to foster understanding during their encounters with other cultures.
  • Capacity Building and trainings among tourism employees in general and those having direct contact with visitors in general need to be further strengthened and applied when considering the various encounters and intercultural dialogues.
  • It is understood that efforts in cross cultural and cross border trainings in the field of tourism can contribute to advance mutual respect, dignity and respect of fundamental ethical beliefs and values of different cultures. Therefore cross-cultural and cross border activities shall be further supported and encouraged.

(Source: UNWTO)