A conversation with EC Vice-President Antonio Tajani

On the occasion of the next European Tourism day, which will be celebrated in Bruxelles the 27th of September,  Jlag interviewed Mr Antonio Tajani, European Commission Vice-President, in charge of  Industry, Entrepreneurship and  Tourism, to talk with him about the future challenges of Tourism in Europe.

– “Europe, the world’s No 1 tourist destination – a new political framework for tourism in Europe” has been published since one year and it seems to have been a very inspirational paper for the tourism industry in Europe. What are the main impacts achieved so far?  What are the next steps of the European political action in the Tourism field?  

Tourism is one of Europe’s most important economic activities directly generating more than 5% of European Union’s (EU) GDP and employing over 5% of the total labour force, nearly 10 million jobs.  The Communication on Tourism – “Europe, the world’s No 1 tourist destination – a new political framework for tourism in Europe”, adopted in 2010, responds to the challenges faced by the European tourism industry. It outlines a consolidated policy framework for sustainable tourism growth. The Communication supports and proposes activities to promote competitiveness, sustainable and quality-based development, and the visibility of Europe as an outstanding tourist destination, aimed at maintaining Europe as the world’s top tourist destination.

We are already implementing several communication related initiatives including promotion campaigns for thematic trans-national tourism products taking the best advantage of the cultural diversity of European tourism destinations and the European Destinations of Excellence (EDEN) Award. This award promotes sustainable tourism development models across Europe as well as drawing attention to some of Europe’s non traditional tourist destinations and hidden gems. This year’s theme is Tourism and Regeneration of Physical sites and the EDEN Award Ceremony for winning destinations will be held in Brussels on the 27th September 2011, together with the European Tourism Day.

With the aim to assist the tourism sector’s adoption of new information technology, the Commission has launched an ICT pilot project to facilitate the participation of tourism SMEs in the digital supply chain.

Furthermore, with a view to enhancing the socio-economic knowledge on tourism-related issues, such as demographic and climate changes, trends in the evolution of tourism demand and supply, impacts of unforeseen events and difficult situations, data and research on tourism business, the Communication foresaw the establishment of a Virtual Tourism Observatory which should help providing useful elements to public authorities to develop policies and to the industry to adopt relevant strategies.

These are only a couple of examples of actions already undertaken by the Commission in line with the Communication on tourism so far. The Commission will continue its relentless efforts to ensure a competitive and sustainable growth for the European tourism

– “Industrial tourism” will be the topic of the European Tourism Day 2011, which will take place the 27th of September in Brussels. In which way industrial tourism can be considered a vehicle to sustainable tourism?

In the context of the above mentioned differentiation of the European tourism offer and in view of supporting “niche” markets, industrial tourism is as important as religious, natural or cycling tourism. It is an innovative product that capitalises on our common heritage and contributes to the sustainable development of tourism policies, preserving our cultures and traditions.

Furthermore, especially in a period of economic crisis, as the one we are facing nowadays, the regeneration of industrial areas for tourism purposes is often the best or the only alternative to avoid the decline of redundant industrial areas with job losses, depopulation and major social consequences. Tourism can, hence, be seen as a viable solution guaranteeing the sustainability of an entire community and it is in our interest to further explore ways of making it successful. By sustainability we do not only refer to the economic one, which in these cases is of course very relevant, but also to socio-cultural factors of these communities that based and built their existence around an industrial sector.

The European Tourism Day is therefore the occasion for public authorities and tourism stakeholders to exchange views and information on specific problems and risks related to this sector and to analyse and assess the solutions and measures undertaken in other European countries to solve those problems, capitalising on European good practices.

– What are in Europe the best practices in this specific niche?

Many EU countries adopted policies aimed at regenerating and reconverting industrial areas with very different results. Transforming an industrial area into a touristic area is a challenge. It is important not to underestimate the potential risks. Those risks are intrinsically related to the switch from industrial activities to tourism based ones: the lack of a tourism culture in the local community might be a relevant problem, together with the need for professional requalification of the population, or the lack of tourism services and adequate infrastructures.

EU structural funds, especially the European Social Fund, have been fundamental in most of the successful cases around Europe, because of their focus on skills development and infrastructural works. It is important to underline that substantial funds are needed, for example, for the preservation and restoration of sites and that local communities cannot face those expenses on their own.

But financing sources, though fundamental, are not the only factor determining the success of an industrial tourism policy.

The ETD will be the occasion to present some of the best practices found all over Europe, thus contributing spreading knowledge and valuable information which could be successfully implemented in other projects and other areas. This is why the choice of the Commission is to present cases which are quite different from each other to cover a wide spectrum of cases and success stories, ranging from policy regulations and voluntary schemes for the preservation and restoration of industrial sites to networking and labelling of sites; from UNESCO heritage sites to European Capitals of Cultures; from European Cultural Routes based on the predominance of industrial heritage to local development strategies; from living industries experiences to new hotel concepts that were able to turn a marginal region into a touristic one, etc.

 – What are the essential sustainable elements for a successful industrial tourism initiative? Do you think that public-private partnerships should be considered a key element?

From the analysis of good practices, certain common elements could be identified.  An industrial tourism project can only succeed if it accompanies cultural activities and tourism products. In my view, the diversification of the tourism offer is the key and this is even more relevant in industrial areas. Tourists seek a mixture of culture, entertainment and relaxation. It is unrealistic to think that tourists will be content in an isolated industrial site. It is important to have a critical mass of resources (natural, cultural and human) around it.

Another factor guaranteeing for the success of an initiative of industrial tourism is the capacity to keep the site authentic. Visitors want to “experience the atmosphere”. It is therefore important to interpret the sites and the history behind them so as to move emotions, rather than concentrating purely on the technology itself.

With uncertain profitability prospects, investors may not be ready to finance the huge resources that are normally required for reconversion projects, so that a public intervention might be necessary to unlock the investment. In most successful cases, the winning idea has certainly been that of involving private stakeholders and investors and to link the site with other attractions. Hence, public-private partnerships are, in my opinion, always desirable or even required. Last but not least the participation of the local community is essential to the success of these policies.

Finally, a strong branding image needs to be developed over time. This is where “Routes” of industrial heritage, networks of sites, can be a winning idea, because of their capacity to join forces for strong marketing initiatives, together with their ability to build a critical mass of attraction that will help them strengthening a brand image.

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