World Tourism Organization, Zurab Pololikashvili, tourism, tourism industry, tourism sector, Sustainable Development Goals, SDGs, United Nations, world news, latest news

Jamaa el-Fna in Marrakech, Morocco © Calin Stan

Tourism Is an Effective Tool for the SDGs

In this edition of The Interview, Fair Observer talks to Zurab Pololikashvili, the secretary-general of the World Tourism Organization.

To travel is a universal human right. There are references to this in national constitutions and international covenants, such as Article 13 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

People travel for a number of reasons: experiencing new cultures, reuniting with loved ones, attending sports events, studying or receiving medical treatment, just to name a few. Tourism contributes to around 10.4% of global GDP. It creates jobs, boosts foreign exchange and empowers local economies. According to a 2018 report by the World Travel and Tourism Council (WTTC), travel and tourism created 313 million jobs in 2017. It is expected that the industry will create 413.5 million jobs in 2028. The report predicts there will be more than $1,400 billion invested on travel and tourism in 2028.

France and Spain compete for the crown of the world’s most popular destination. In 2017, France received 86.9 million tourists, while Spain received 81.8 million international visitors. They are followed by the United States, China and Italy.

The World Tourism Organization (UNWTO) is the UN agency responsible for the promotion of tourism. Headquartered in Madrid, it encourages the implementation of the Global Code of Ethics for Tourism. The UNWTO publishes the World Tourism Barometer, which is a monitor of short-term tourism trends across the world and an indicator of the number of tourist arrivals per country.

In this edition of The Interview, Fair Observer talks to Zurab Pololikashvili, the secretary-general of the World Tourism Organization, about the importance of tourism as a driver of the global economy and the challenges of promoting sustainable tourism.

The transcript has been edited for clarity. 

Ziabari: Tourism is considered by the UNWTO as a way of achieving the UN Sustainable Development Goals by reducing poverty and driving economic growth. How is this possible?

Pololikashvili: Tourism is far more than tourism alone. From infrastructure and communication to food production and transport, tourism’s considerable economic weight gives it the responsibility and the power to play a key role in the sustainable and responsible development of economies and societies.

Not only has tourism been a sector of consistently above-average growth for eight straight years, with 1.3 billion international tourist arrivals recorded in 2017, but the sector’s cross-cutting nature and wide global reach make it an effective tool to contribute to all of the 17 Sustainable Development Goals.

By advancing our work to step up innovation and digitalization, and developing the Tourism for SDGs platform as a co-creation space for SDG implementation ideas and initiatives, the UNWTO encourages positive change in governance and business strategies toward the long-term sustainable development of tourism.

Ziabari: Public awareness should be raised so that countries treat tourism as a priority. How does the UNWTO support its member states when it comes to the provision of tourism-related education and dissemination of knowledge?

Pololikashvili: The UNWTO is the UN’s special agency to promote tourism’s many benefits on societies and the economy. We have a comprehensive development vision for tourism: making it a policy priority, building capacity through meaningful partnerships and, importantly, establishing thought leadership in knowledge and policy creation. We carry out technical cooperation and capacity-building projects all over the world to enhance tourism knowledge. We hope to be more active still under our expanded tourism education program, the UNWTO Academy, with activities such as online master classes for meetings and business tourism.

We also support current tourism training hubs in member states all over the world, and encourage that they join our TedQual certification program, through which we assure quality and improvement for tourism education centers worldwide.

Building capacity for tourism also requires improved training sensitive to the sector’s needs. If we are to create better jobs, we must develop the skills needed as the sector undergoes a digital revolution and tourists’ demands change. For this reason, we will be focusing 2019’s activities on our priority of education and employment.

Ziabari: I noted that the UNWTO’s work on child protection and preventing all forms of child and youth exploitation in the tourism sector spans over more than 15 years. Is sexual exploitation or child trafficking a serious concern or has enough progress been made to address these issues?

Pololikashvili: The UNWTO was one of the first international organizations to focus specifically on ending all forms of child and youth exploitation in the tourism sector. We have been actively involved in raising awareness of this issue for the past 20 years. This is, sadly, an ongoing concern that transcends tourism.

The digital era has brought widespread use of internet and mobile technologies and, unfortunately, predators have found new ways of contacting and tricking their victims online. The use of these new tools and platforms calls for adapted methods to fight child exploitation effectively.

The UNWTO is now working toward the adoption of potentially its first convention: the UNWTO Framework Convention on Tourism Ethics. The ballot vote on its adoption is scheduled for the next general assembly. The convention’s Article 5.3 makes explicit reference to fighting any form of exploitation of children within tourism activities.

The second paragraph calls upon all states ” concerned [to] penalize without concession by the national legislation of both the countries visited and the countries of the perpetrators of these acts, even when they are carried out abroad.” This aims to create extraterritorial jurisdiction on this matter, as this is a legal loophole that obstructs advancement in condemning the crime of youth exploitation.

Ziabari: What are the major obstacles to the fulfillment of the “right to tourism” as stipulated in Article 7 of the Global Code of Ethics?

Pololikashvili: The right to tourism stipulated in the code originates from Article 24 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights: “Everyone has the right to rest and leisure, including reasonable limitation of working hours and periodic holidays with pay.” It also draws upon Article 7.d of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights: “Rest, leisure and reasonable limitation of working hours and periodic holidays with pay, as well as remuneration for public holidays.”

There are also other aspects that should not be neglected. For the UNWTO, it is important to raise awareness of the need for accessible tourism destinations, services, products and facilities for all as a fundamental aspect of equality and respect for human rights. With 15% of the world’s population, about 1 billion people, estimated to live with some form of disability, making tourism facilities accessible is also a good business opportunity.

Furthermore, disadvantaged segments of a population having access to tourism can have a tremendous impact in prompting pro-active behavior, self-esteem and inclusion.

Ziabari: Are you concerned about the politically motivated ban imposed by President Donald Trump on the citizens of five Muslim-majority countries and its impact on the right of those citizens to travel to the United States?

Pololikashvili: Bans on citizens traveling are opposed to the spirit and objectives of the UNWTO and the recognition of tourism as a celebration of our world’s diversity of places and cultures. For tourism exchange to work, the destination needs to be welcoming, open, tolerant and respectful — for tourism is a bilateral or multilateral experience.

Growth in migration, like growth in tourism, is a consequence of globalization. Unfortunately, the negative aspects of migration seem to be the only stories that attract headlines. However, in line with the UN’s approach to migration, the UNWTO sees clearly that migration makes important social and economic contributions to destination countries, culturally enriching their societies, enhancing tourism products and providing labor for the tourism, hospitality and catering sectors.

Migration in itself is also a clear generator of tourism demand. There is a two-way flow of expatriates visiting their countries of origin, and their relatives and friends visiting them in their new host countries. Migrants’ remittances and income from tourism can also have a real impact on poverty reduction. It can enhance investment in tourism-related projects and community infrastructure in expatriates’ countries of origin. 

Ziabari: Article 5 of the Global Code of Ethics for Tourism says that tourism is a beneficial activity for host countries and communities. There are many countries that are either unaware of the importance of tourism or seem unwilling to prioritize tourism. Is there anything that can be done so that all countries are convinced to pay adequate attention to the tourism sector?

Pololikashvili: Tourism accounts for some 10% of the world’s GDP and jobs, boosts foreign exchange, drives entrepreneurship and development in many countries and regions, and promotes intercultural dialogue and tolerance. Tourism also has an extraordinary potential to contribute to the socioeconomic empowerment and advancement of women, youth, indigenous people, people with disabilities and other disadvantaged population segments.

However, the rise of tourism has created challenges that must not be ignored. Without concerns for sustainability and responsibility, tourism can develop in detrimental ways: damaging the environment, depleting natural resources and biodiversity, disrupting social and cultural values, ignoring disadvantaged groups and even exploiting human beings.

World Tourism Organization, Zurab Pololikashvili, tourism, tourism industry, tourism sector, Sustainable Development Goals, SDGs, United Nations, world news, latest news

© Zarya Maxim Alexandrovich

For these reasons, it is important for countries to have well-planned, comprehensive tourism policies. Tourism development and management is a transversal policy issue. It touches upon many other issues such as urbanization, transport connectivity, environmental impacts, labor, trade, and security. So, it needs to be included in overall national development agenda.

Ziabari: What does the UNWTO do to promote travel facilitation in order to boost economic growth globally? Can you provide us with some examples of the most notable achievements your organization has made in this regard?

Pololikashvili: The UNWTO has conducted research on global visa openness. Our index score for visa openness has increased from 31 in 2014 to 37 in 2018, meaning that more and more countries are establishing favorable travel facilitation measures that help to make tourism safer and more seamless.

One recent achievement of our work on visa facilitation has been the change in visa regime in Qatar. In 2014, Qatar commissioned a visa facilitation study for the country, which the UNWTO prepared based on its global openness data. Qatar responded with many visa facilitation improvements, including allowing nationals of 88 countries to enter visa-free and free-of-charge. As a result, Qatar’s visa openness ranking leapt to 8th in the world, from 177th back in 2014.

Ziabari: What do you think about the stringent visa policies of some countries, mostly EU member states, for citizens of the global south? Do you agree that harsh visa policies block easy and sustainable tourism and that, sometimes, the imposed restrictions are redundant and unnecessary?

Pololikashvili: Facilitating seamless travel is crucial to the continued promotion of tourism as a development vehicle and potential pillar of achieving the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.

Over the past years, we have seen a more differentiated approach to visa policies emerge. Countries now use evaluation and decision-making mechanisms that go beyond patterns of mirroring overall trends, reacting to competitors’ behavior or reciprocating the actions of the origin country of tourists.

However, at this point in history, more nuanced answers to visa facilitation challenges are needed — answers that find an effective balance between prioritizing ease of travel and respecting national jurisdiction and sovereignty. The UNWTO will continue to assist our partners to find this balance. Only then will we be able to promote a truly safe and seamless travel experience.

Ziabari: What sort of feedback do you receive about the periodical World Tourism Barometer that you publish? Do all countries cooperate with you closely to provide figures and data on their tourism sector, arrivals, expenditure and other information you need?

Pololikashvili: We collect data from as many countries as we can. There are some information gaps due to a lack of data received.

Some countries have pointed out the need for knowledge exchange and more financial and technical support to modernize data sources. In response, we are looking for more cooperation between all relevant institutions and the private sector toward this modernization process.

Ziabari: Do you think the global community is sufficiently aware of the importance of modern forms of tourism, including eco-tourism and gastronomy tourism?

Pololikashvili: Raising awareness amongst this community of the many different forms of tourism and their benefits forms the central task of UNWTO, as I mentioned earlier.

Throughout 2018, we increased our outreach on some of the more modern forms of tourism, such as gastronomy and sports tourism, as well as innovation and the digital advances we see in the sector. As such, we have spearheaded competitions to find the startups with the most disruptive ideas and initiatives in tourism, specifically within the gastronomy and sports tourism segments.

Awareness from the global community is also helped by tourism’s relentless growth and incredible resilience. The sector has grown every year since 2010, and by an average of 4%-5%. As tourists grow, so does awareness of the different forms of tourism and how they can be used to increase both competitiveness and sustainability.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.