A conversation with the UNWTO Secretary-General Taleb Rifai

Jlag interviewed Mr. Taleb Rifai, the Secretary-General of the World Tourism Organization (UNWTO). Mr. Taleb Rifai talked with us about the main challenges of Tourism Towards 2030 and the main strategies that the European Union should follow to make tourism a driver for growth in Europe.

– Tourism Towards 2030 shows that there is still a substantial potential for further expansion in coming decades. How can European destinations benefit from this trend? How can hidden gems reach this opportunity?

Tourism Towards 2030, UNWTO’s recently released in-depth study into future tourism trends, shows that an average 43 million additional tourists will join the marketplace each year between now and 2030. By 2030, 1.8 billion tourists will be crossing international borders.

For Europe, this growth will translate into 13 million new travelers every year.

To benefit from this major opportunity, European destinations will need to continue to shape the conditions conducive to tourism growth. These include supportive national policies determining a tourism-friendly environment; a private sector at the forefront of technological developments and innovation; travel facilitation, including facilitating border crossings and visa procedures; investments in infrastructure and product development; and an eye trained on quality, marketing, human resources and market trends, as market knowledge will be key to “attracting” an ever more demanding customer.

Sustainable policies and practices are also critical, especially for Europe where coastlines and mountains play a significant role in the tourism supply. These areas are particularly fragile in terms of environmental sustainability and most susceptible to the effects of climate change. To continue enjoying the benefits of tourism over the next twenty years and beyond, these areas, and others, must be developed according to the principles of sustainability.

– Which European emerging destinations do you consider with high potentials of growth? Which strategies and practices should European policy makers follow to make tourism a concrete opportunity for social, economic and environmental growth?

In 2030, Southern and Mediterranean Europe will continue to lead in Europe in terms of tourist arrivals (264 million international tourist arrivals in 2030), followed by Western Europe (222 million in 2030), Central and Eastern Europe (176 million) and Northern Europe (82 million).

These figures represent a convergence in market share across European sub-regions, a trend also noticeable at the global level where the traditional concentration of arrivals in relatively few destinations will be reduced. Instead, future arrivals will be more evenly spread over destinations.

In terms of average annual growth, Central and Eastern Europe will be the fastest growing European sub-region of the next twenty years, growing at a rate of 3% a year. Less mature destinations within the sub-region will clearly benefit from this accelerated growth, so long as they put in place the necessary framework, based on the areas highlighted above.

– Which are the key elements to stimulate competitiveness and innovation in the European tourism sector?

Ranking first in terms of international tourist arrivals and international tourism receipts, Europe has enjoyed a long reign as the world’s leading tourism destination. Nevertheless, Europe’s market share is expected to decrease over the coming years, as emerging economy destinations grow at double the pace of advanced economy ones.

To remain competitive in this shifting marketplace, Europe will need to reinforce its image as a tourism destination characterized by high quality and sustainability. European destinations should forge strong working partnerships between the public and private sector. Europe would also benefit from joint promotion efforts, to strengthen its image and attract non-European travellers.

Advances in areas such as travel facilitation within the Schengen area, the extensive development of the European transport network and the single European currency have been key in strengthening the competitiveness of the destination “Europe” and should be further pursued.

In terms of innovation, public and private support must be given to those new concepts, products, technologies and even policies that allow tourism to respond to an ever-changing world. Tourism innovation is particularly important for ensuring that the sector remains sustainable, through energy-saving technologies and green tourism products.

– Which non-EU countries do you consider strategic for Europe to cooperate with in the tourism sector?

 The large majority of tourism trips worldwide take place within one’s own region, which demonstrates the importance of regional cooperation in this field. Immediate neighbors, therefore, along the South and to the East are of most relevance to Europe’s tourism sector.

The Mediterranean, the most visited sub-region in the world, is an area of particular importance to Europe. A number of challenges face the sub-region which cannot be tackled alone, notably competition from other regions with similar products and the fragile environment on which much of the tourism offer is based. Only by partnering with neighbors on key competitive factors such as innovation, knowledge building and sustainable development can the competitiveness of tourism in the Mediterranean be assured.

There is also an immense opportunity to develop intra-Mediterranean travel through actions in areas such as travel facilitation, improved access (land and air transport systems and legislation), or exchange programmes for travellers and tourism professionals.

At the same time, it will be pivotal for Europe to cooperate in promoting itself in the fast growing long haul source markets of Asia and Latin America, such as China or Brazil.

– Under the Lisbon Treaty, tourism has become a specific competence of the EU. The Union will complement the action of the Member States in the tourism sector. What is your opinion about the new European political framework?

That the European Union now has the competence to support, coordinate, and supplement the actions of Member States in the area of tourism is an extremely important development. Not only does a European tourism policy allow all players involved in tourism to work more closely together, but it represents an explicit recognition of tourism’s economic and social importance to Europe. Tourism is the third largest economic activity in the EU providing directly and indirectly as much as 10% of its GDP and employing 12% of the workforce. At a time of persistently high unemployment, the rate of job creation in the European tourism sector is higher than in the whole of the EU. Tourism can in fact be a driver in fostering economic growth in Europe in such challenging times.

With the first European tourism policy in the history of the EU, the European tourism sector is undoubtedly better prepared to face current and future challenges in the move towards a more competitive and sustainable European tourism sector.

– Which are your favorite European tourist routes, which are your main reasons for travelling?

As Secretary-General of the World Tourism Organization, much of my job involves travelling, whether to assist and advise national tourism administrations, hold meetings with heads of state on the importance of tourism or visiting UNWTO tourism initiatives on the ground. In a funny way, my main reason for travelling is to get more people travelling, and travelling sustainably.

On holiday, when I’m not in Jordan visiting family and friends, I do try to see as much as Europe as possible. UNWTO Headquarters are based in Madrid, Spain and having the rest of Europe on my doorstep is a luxury I enjoy making the most of.


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