How to get along with sustainable tourism's government gatekeepers

A tourist at a cultural site. Photo by: Porapak Apichodilok

CHENGDU, China — Nearly 20 years ago, Taleb Rifai fell unceremoniously into his role as Jordan’s minister of tourism.

Rifai — the United Nations World Tourism Organization’s outgoing secretary-general — was then the minister of information of Jordan, patiently waiting in the prime minister’s office while his boss had a heated argument on the phone. When the prime minister hung up, he turned and offered Rifai the top tourism job in the country.

Despite Rifai’s insistence that he already had more than enough to keep busy, his superior insisted: "’Just take it over, it’s nothing’ he told me,” Rifai said.

A few months later, Rifai was back in the prime minister’s office to let him know that his tourism ministry duties now made up more than 80 percent of his portfolio — and he wanted to focus his effort on tourism full time to harness all the potential he was finding.

The position of tourism minister shouldn’t be casually gifted or awarded as an appeasement, as has long been done in many countries, Rifai said during UNWTO’s 22nd Assembly in Chengdu, China. And the role of tourism should no longer be seen as an afterthought to country-wide sustainable development efforts. It’s time to recognize the growth and professionalization of the sector, several ministers at the assembly told Devex, and to acknowledge tourism as the driver of economic growth that will power the 17 Sustainable Development Goals, not just the three it explicitly touches.

This month, the UNWTO adopted its first ever Convention on Tourism Ethics in a move to elevate its code of ethics and also ensure that the vast sums of money spent on tourism each year — such as $1.2 trillion tourist spending in 2015 — benefit the environment and local communities.

“If the government does not believe in tourism and the wonders of tourism in terms of the ability to generate social progress and improve the standard of living of people in the country, then there’s nothing to do.”

— Costa Rica Tourism Minister Mauricio Ventura

“The approval of the convention “is a strong sign that countries are committed to make tourism a force for a better future for all,” Rifai said in a statement.

But establishing a firmer foothold in development requires more work from governments first, considering many ministers in developing countries are still trying to convince their superiors that tourism can do more than increase the GDP.

“There are still states and nations that don’t understand how beneficial tourism can be in terms of social progress and solving problems,” the Democratic Republic of the Congo delegate aptly stated during the assembly.

Find a foothold

Sustainable tourism for development is complicated when tourism is still scrambling for a place of priority or competing with other government ministries — and success lies, unsurprisingly, in integration.

In the Philippines, tourism is the third largest foreign exchange earner, but “when you look at the budget allocation among the departments, I think we are number 21 or 22 … so that’s already a clear illustration of the importance at least the budget department gives us,” said Benito Bengzon, undersecretary of tourism development in the Philippines.

The same goes for Sierra Leone, where tourism remains one of the least funded ministries despite its placement as a top pillar in the country’s agenda for prosperity, according to Sierra Leone Minister of Tourism and Cultural Affairs Sidie Yahya Tunis.

But more than budget, it’s often competing government priorities and structures that hinder his work in recognizing tourism as a sustainable tool for development, Tunis said.

“In Sierra Leone, there are times when we’ve found ourselves in conflict with other ministries and departments because their laws conflict with ours,” Tunis said, adding that responsibility over beachfront properties, for example, often becomes a dispute with the Ministry of Lands.

The Chengdu Declaration on Tourism and the Sustainable Development Goals, presented at the assembly in China, recommends that governments ensure the inclusion of tourism in interministerial commissions or working groups — a version of which Tunis said Sierra Leone is employing already. Ministerial coordination bodies within the office of the president are enabling ministries to better work together and communicate, although there are still several outdated tourism laws Tunis would like to see changed.

In the Philippines, Bengzon considers the country’s integration of the goals of the Department of Tourism with those of the Department of Natural Resources as “something that can be categorized as a defining moment with respect to our appreciation of our sustainable development goals.”

Use tourism as a tool

It’s a rare country that still needs to prove that travel and tourism can serve as a pillar of economic growth and a job creating engine, considering in 2016 the sector generated 10 percent of global GDP and 292 million jobs directly and indirectly, according to the World Travel and Tourism Council.

But tourism is still taken for granted in many developing countries, according to Gloria Guevara Manzo, president and CEO of the WTTC, which works with governments to raise awareness about private sector potential in tourism and travel.

“They don’t see it as a strategic pillar for their development until something happens — until there is a crisis, a geopolitical or security situation or a natural disaster,” Guevara said. “It’s when it impacts their economy that they realize ‘wow we didn’t know that travel and tourism was so relevant and we need to do something.’”

This is true of Sierra Leone, Tunis said, following 2014’s widespread outbreak of the Ebola virus, which took 4,000 lives and resulted in quarantines, travel bans, and a state of emergency. “Previously we were focused on minerals and agriculture, but afterward, our government decided to diversify our economy and focus more on tourism,” he said.

Colombia, too, has set its sights to tourism more than ever before as it continues to work through its peace process. Now, the country plans to use tourism to empower rural communities most affected by decades of conflict, the majority of which weren’t previously able to participate in economic development like agro-tourism or ecotourism, explained Vice Minister of Tourism for Colombia Sandra Howard Taylor.

Countries can go even further in proving tourism for social progress by undertaking national assessments on tourism’s contribution to the SDGs — and doing so before disaster strikes.

Costa Rica is perhaps the gold standard of this, having established its first certificate for sustainable tourism more than 20 years ago. Now, the country is focused on measuring the impact of tourism initiatives on well-being using the Social Progress Index, which looks at indicators such as access to water and sanitation, access to education, and transport and accessibility.

It’s a tool, Costa Rica Tourism Minister Mauricio Ventura said, that can “prove to the world what tourism really means in terms of social development.”

Findings from its first SPI pilot found that eight of the 10 tourism-heavy areas measured had a higher standard of living than comparable areas that weren’t tourism focused.

“Tourism is generating a better standard of living, and now we can see where our weaknesses and strengths in different areas are so as to establish public policy and direct government programs to that particular weakness,” he said.

In June, UNWTO presented a draft a of a new statistical framework for measuring the impact of tourism, which will in the future examine economic, environmental, and social dimensions in the context of the Sustainable Development Goals. It’s a tool UNWTO leaders hope to see rolled out in countries worldwide.

Ease up on the numbers

But it can’t all be about the numbers. Now, government minister’s homework above all else is to glance up from the figures and shift focus from attracting tourists to lifting the communities who serve them, several tourism leaders told Devex.

Tourism isn’t about growth in terms of the number of tourists, Costa Rica’s Ventura shared, it’s about the amount of money they spend in the country. Costa Rica, for example, receives 3 million tourists and makes $4 billion in tourism a year, but “the ideal tourist would be one tourist that spends $4 billion,” Ventura joked.

In other words, the focus should not be on the quantity of tourists but on the way the money made is distributed in the country — something Southeast Asian countries such as the Philippines and Thailand are quickly realizing.

“When you talk about tourism, it’s not so much the satisfaction of the tourist as it is empowering people at the community level,” said Bengzon of the Philippines, who would like to harness tourism — which has grown 11 percent in the past year — to provide revenues more evenly across the archipelago.

For Thailand, managing a booming $50 billion tourism industry has become a matter of prioritizing patience over fast growth, according to Kobkarn Wattanavrankul, minister of tourism and sports in the country. Wattanavrankul won’t outright divulge the number of international tourists — which stands at more than 30 million a year — not out of a desire to be secretive, but because the country no longer wants to focus on numbers.

“When people start to see the growth, it’s a double-edged blade. Now they recognize: last year 32.6, next year you should get 40 million, they want growth,” she said. “Definitely we should grow, but we have to make sure that people will be ready for this growth.”

The focus, she said, should be on quality via sustainability.

“The balance of business, community, and environment … it’s our duty to ensure balance.”

— Kobkarn Wattanavrankul, Thailand’s minister of tourism and sports

Thailand has long been pioneering tourism in the form of homestays, where foreign visitors are able to experience authentic Thai culture in a small village.

“We’ve learned many things the hard way,” Wattanavrankul said of many failed community-based tourism efforts, where only several homes in a village benefit from foreign dollars while the rest of the community struggles and eventually sells their land.

Now, the government is working with communities to establish wealth sharing plans prior to welcoming tourists. Two houses might host visitors, but another will sell sweets, another home will provide meals, another will do laundry, and another will produce locally grown produce.

One community is then matched with one tour operator exclusively to avoid the arrival of big buses, a model Wattanavrankul credits to Myanmar.

“The balance of business, community, and environment … it’s our duty to ensure balance,” she said.

No matter what, successful sustainable tourism initiatives and the approach a country takes to harnessing tourism for the realization of the SDGs begins with government, tourism experts repeatedly told Devex.

“If the government does not believe in tourism and the wonders of tourism in terms of the ability to generate social progress and improve the standard of living of people in the country, then there’s nothing to do,” Costa Rica’s Ventura said.

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About the author

  • Kelli Rogers

    Kelli Rogers is an Associate Editor for Devex. Based on the U.S. West Coast, she works with Devex's team of correspondents and editors around the world, with a particular focus on gender. She previously worked as Devex’s Southeast Asia correspondent based in Bangkok, covering disaster and crisis response, resilience, women’s rights, and climate change throughout the region. Prior to that, she reported on social and environmental issues from Nairobi, Kenya. Kelli holds a bachelor’s degree in journalism from the University of Missouri, and has since reported from more than 20 countries.