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Taleb D. Rifai – Secretary-General (World Tourism Organization (UNWTO)

Taleb D. Rifai is Secretary-General of the World Tourism Organization (UNWTO) based in Madrid, Spain. He holds this position since 1 January 2010. Mr. Rifai has an extensive background in international and national public service, the private sector and academia. Prior to joining UNWTO he was the Assistant Director General of the International Labour Organization (ILO). Mr. Rifai has also served in several ministerial portfolios in the Government of Jordan as Minister of Planning and International Cooperation, Minister of Information and Minister of Tourism and Antiquity. He also has background in researching, teaching and practicing Architecture and Urban Design in Jordan and the USA.

  • Could you describe us the role of UN World Tourism Organization in sustainable tourism?

The World Tourism Organization (UNWTO) is the specialized agency of the United Nations responsible for the promotion of responsible and sustainable tourism. 

As the leading international organization in the field of tourism, UNWTO promotes tourism as a driver of economic growth, inclusive development and environmental sustainability. In this respect, all our action is guided by the UNWTO Global Code of Ethics for Tourism, endorsed by the United Nations General Assembly in 2001 which established the principles upon which sustainable tourism in all its three pillars – economic, social and environmental – should be developed

In this regard, it is important to stress that sustainable tourism should be applied to all types of destinations, so that environmental preservation, protection of tangible and intangible heritage and respect to local cultures and products are taken into consideration. UNWTO works in advocating and developing sustainable tourism policies and business practices with governments, private sector, civil society and the media, providing guidance to key stakeholders of the sector and supporting capacity building efforts. Examples of our action in this area include for example the International Observatories of Sustainable Tourism under the auspices of UNWTO, our work on promoting energy efficiency in the accommodation industry in Europe, and many others. 

  • What are the biggest challenges of today’s world tourism industry?

Among the challenges that the sector faces, I would underline three which are also UNWTO current priorities: i) the impact of technology on consumers and business models; ii) ensuring travel is safe and secure but also seamless and iii) sustainability and the effective management of resources.  

  • How important is stability for tourism in the region? What can you recommend to the Middle East tourism sector and governments to consider as a long-term strategy?

Stability is essential for the development of tourism in any region of the world; the same way that we believe that tourism can contribute to promote more stable societies. In that regard, the Middle East region, full of history, of tradition, of heritage, offers a mixed picture with mature and consolidated destinations that with no doubt will continue their success stories in the present and future despite the current challenges facing some of them. As a whole, international tourist arrivals to the Middle East grew in 2015 by 2% despite all challenges. 

In the long term, UNWTO recommendations for the Middle East are the same as for other regions. The first key step is to place tourism as a key pillar of economic growth and development and set a national tourism policy that engages all relevant stakeholders. That policy should include key issues such as investment in human capital, quality and the diversification of products; infrastructure development including connectivity, public/private partnerships and public/public coordination; resource efficiency; visa facilitation; safety and security and effective marketing and promotion.

  • What effect do you think the rise of more conservative governments is having on tourism in the region?

With independence of the having more liberal or conservative governments the important for tourism development is that governments place tourism as a priority among the sectors that can deliver on exports, economic growth and job creation. 

  • There is rapidly increasing activity in developing markets. How is this fundamentally reordering the tourism industry and its impact on cities?

As stated by many international organizations, including the World Bank, the levels of poverty have decreased dramatically over the last three decades, from half the citizens in the developing world in 1981 to 21 percent in 2010. This has made possible that many citizens who were not considering travelling before, have now the capacity to do so and to discover new destinations. Because of that, we believe that tourism is a right for all citizens that can be even considered as a thermometer of the development level of a certain destination. At the same time, the humankind is naturally eager to get to know its outer environment and in that regard there is an increasing interest to visit destinations which were not in the most well-known traditional routes. Both phenomena are good news for the tourism sector and open great opportunities not only to bring prosperity to developing markets, but also to create a world social consciousness about current events in remote areas, something which enhances intercultural dialogue and elimination of prejudices. The impact that tourism may have on cities or any other destination is a different matter and appropriate management policies should be put in place so that sustainability can become a reality. 

  • Can tourism be seen as a socio-economic development tool for cities?

Yes without any doubt. Tourism fosters economic growth, creates jobs, especially for women and youth and so can be a leading engine to enhance social cohesion, promote the development of infrastructure and often supports the promotion and preservation of cultural assets. There are a growing number of cities where tourism has played a key role in fostering for example urban regeneration. In this regard, UNWTO has developed what we call the Cities Networks where public and private sector come together to promote and develop new and innovative approaches to city tourism. Among our activities in this area is a series of World City Summits the next of which will take place in Luxor in November focusing on cultural city tourism. 

  • What are the opportunities and challenges that cities face today with these mega-scale tourism events such as World Cup and Olympics?

Mega events and tourism are increasingly interlinked. These events bring many opportunities to destinations as they help to develop infrastructure, build or strengthen the image of the city, invest in human resource and create jobs.  Yet to maximize the impact of such events, destinations need to address them with a long term view ensuring there is a legacy strategy that stays after the event. Another important challenge is naturally that of the social and environmental impact as these events translate into a high level of demand concentrated in a certain moment and time. In this respect it is important to devise green events and build strategies that diversify demand throughout the city. 

  • What role does tourism play in improving the urbanization in the cities?

Of course tourism can motivate investment in infrastructures and in other aspects of destinations so that they become more attractive for travelers. But furthermore, the sector can be a catalyst to convert all citizens of a particular destination in ambassadors who can advocate its richness and beauty. This explains our belief in the responsibility of all of us to praise the tourism sector, not only those working on it. 

  • How do you view Turkey as a tourist destination and what kind of improvements can be made to attract more tourists in the future?

Turkey is the 6th most visited destination in the world which has had an impressive growth in recent years. The number of international tourist grew from 24 million in 2005 to nearly 36 million in 2014. The diversification that the Turkish tourism sector has gone through has yielded its results and we trust this is the correct strategy to follow.

  • What part can tourists play in upholding the principles of sustainability in tourism and so drive the development of cities?

All stakeholders of the tourism sector should be responsible to preserve heritage, to protect the environment and to respect local cultures and products, including visitors.

In 2015, there were 1.2 billion people travelling internationally and an estimated 6 billion travelling within their countries. These billions of people represent billions of opportunities to transform a destination with their actions. Imagine one positive action multiplied by 7 billion. 

We should recognize that we have advanced a lot in that regard and at present, international tourists are much more sensitized about their while travelling. At the same time, governments are aware of the importance of sustainability as a catalyst to reinforce their image and reputation and the private sector is highly involved in corporate responsibility practices.

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