Speakers at the World Travel & Tourism Council Global Summit in Bangkok expressed hopes that globalization, and global tourism, can survive in an age of nationalism.
BANGKOK—The benefits of tourism and an open society were a recurring theme at the recent World Travel & Tourism Council Global Summit, which drew a large crowd from all over the world to Bangkok, the host city.
Taleb Rifai, secretary-general of the United Nations World Tourism Organization, outlined the three focus areas in UNWTO planning for global tourism: Security, technology and sustainability. He, like other speakers, also emphasized that “travel makes people better” and recent travel bans and suggestions of walls are counterproductive, as the core business is to make the world a better place.
As global travel growth continues to outpace general economic growth, speakers agreed the travel industry faces not only a strong future but also a great responsibility to lead the transformation that’s needed. It’s a powerful statement that the $7.6 trillion and 300 million jobs generated by the industry represents one in every $10 spent and one in every 10 jobs.
It was widely suggested that the industry must continue to influence the freedom to travel, enhance visa reform and use the best possible methods to protect borders and people. Instead of defining people by nationality and religion for travel, speakers agreed the discussion must bring forward biometrics and other solutions to go beyond blanket assumptions.
It took airlines three years to remove paper tickets; how long will it take for governments to follow suit with visas?
This is particularly important for all nations trying to attract the growing base of Chinese international travellers. And there are now more than 100 million middle-class people who want to travel and see the world.
Thailand and the ASEAN
The Prime Minister of Thailand, H.E. General Prayut Chan-o-cha, highlighted his country’s tourism capability and success story as the 11th most visited place in the world, but also suggested a surprisingly changing world with continued globalization and increasing geopolitical factors.
Technological advancement and economic development are visible effects of this growth, but there is also a growing need to counter the increased threat of terrorism and international organized crime.
Today’s travelers and tourists face unprecedented, strict background and security checks, and the challenge is to find a healthy balance between freedom of travel and safety.
The prime minister cited Thailand’s continued growth: Tourism revenue grew by 16.7% in 2015 to 1.45 trillion Baht ($4.2 billion) and saw an additional 11% growth in 2016. The sector has created nearly 14 million jobs in the country, and Thailand plays a pivotal role in connecting and supporting tourism in the region at bilateral and unilateral levels. Overall the 10 countries in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations is working to turn the region into a single tourist destination, and the current campaign, “Visit ASEAN@50,” was created to mark the ASEAN’s 50th anniversary in 2017.
Kobkarn Wattanavrangkul, Thailand’s minister of tourism and sports, mentioned the benefits that the country is seeing from improved ability to do iterative long-term planning in infrastructure and visa deregulations, working toward digital borders.
Sustainability, threats and openness
Throughout the event, two topics came back frequently.
The most prominent of these was sustainability and climate change, all aligned with 2017 as the UN Year of Sustainable Tourism for Development.
There was also clear advocacy from all directions and stakeholders to confront the current trend of protectionism and nationalism that is sweeping parts of the world.
David Cameron, former Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, held a positive long-term view of the impact of tourism as a force for good, in that it helps poorer nations into being developed, and developed nations to be more prosperous. He would not agree that globalization has had its day.
Decline is not inevitable and the freedom to trade and travel is successful. But it has left some people behind, he suggested, and the right big decisions need to be made to combat inequality in everything from education to minimum wage and beyond.
One of the major challenges remains Islamic extremism and its impact on tourism. Islam is being hijacked by terrorists, and there is concern that travel bans and closed borders play into the terrorists’ hands. The travel industry needs to work with politicians to keep travel safe.
Cameron also addressed the topic of Brexit, acknowledging that the process was needed, even if the outcome was not what he wanted.
He also expressed the view that in light of cross-border trade dependencies between the UK and the rest of Europe, we are not likely to see strong disruption either in the next two years or in 2019 when the UK will have left the EU. Those two years are arguably too short to negotiate a new trade environment on all fronts, he said, but principles can be set out to govern similarly as today for the foreseeable future, though certain critical topics may change over time.
Much of the former prime minister’s thoughts were echoed by Professor Ian Goldin from the University of Oxford, who said that globalization has not irredeemably failed. Change continues to occur because walls are coming down, not going up, he said.
Life expectancy and general income is up, while illiteracy and the ratio of desperately poor people is down, Goldin said. But inequalities remain a growing challenge. People left behind by change is the issue, not globalization itself, he said.
While the pace of change is acceptable, the aging population in some countries will not be. China already this year has 1.6 million fewer workers compared to last year. On the flipside, you have India in a demographic transition, where 72% of the population is below 30 years of age.
Marriott International President and CEO Arne Sorenson said globalization in an age of nationalism can survive in face of nationalists and populists as critics. Threats are indeed big and we don’t respond by being quiet and not listening, he said. We have to listen to understand the underlying issues, such as fear and confusion around immigration and rules, he said.
Right to travel doesn’t work well for populists, Sorenson said; instead the industry needs to address two issues—what travel really does and what we mean by it. Travel policy has an impact on immigration, he said; biometrics and more are needed to keep it safe and controlled. The power of the industry to build economies and jobs is in the interest of nations, he said.
Japan: Adapting to mass market tourism
In a special update session on Japan, the discussion focused on how Japan can adapt to the recent growth in international arrivals, but also grow even further. Change is not always easy in a very traditional country, but plans are to:
- Increase the flow to secondary markets;
- increase translations;
- perform industry deregulations;
- widen source markets to new countries, so as not to be too dependent on China or Asia; and
- create a “vacation reform” to encourage domestic tourism by Japanese.
New legislation for “Authorizing Residence Lodging Business” (for example, Airbnb) was submitted to the Diet in March 2017. This bill aims to address concerns over safety, public health, neighbor troubles, etc., to facilitate sound development of diverse lodging options. The fact remains that Japan has a shortage of hotel rooms and therefore feels the need to enable more residential lodging options, beyond the heritage product of ryokans, the traditional B&Bs in Japan.
In addition, the renovation of hotels and destinations is important, as well as job creation optimization policies, especially given the declining population.
In 2018, the summit moves back to South America and Buenos Aires in Argentina.
Jesper Palmqvist is area director for Asia Pacific at STR.
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