Outgoing UN tourism chief shares lessons, key challenges for tourism as a development driver

Taleb Rifai, outgoing secretary-general of the World Tourism Organization. Photo by: Elma Okic / WTO / CC BY-NC-ND

MONTEGO BAY, Jamaica — When Taleb Rifai took the helm of the United Nations World Tourism Organization eight years ago, other U.N. leaders questioned why the organization even had such an agency. At the time, it would have been hard to envision how many would come to see tourism as an important tool for sustainable development.

What has really changed in his tenure is how people view tourism, Rifai, the secretary-general of the UNWTO, told Devex in an interview. That’s evident in the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development’s decision to count contributions to the UNWTO as official development assistance and by the U.N. General Assembly declaring 2017 to be the International Year of Sustainable Tourism for Development.

Rifai’s term ends at the end of the year and Zurab Pololikashvili — who was appointed earlier this year amid questions of foul play, a potentially flawed election process, and a strong-arm effort to demand consensus over a ballot vote — will take the reins.

Rifai has met nearly 100 heads of state during his tenure as the UNWTO chief, and he said in each meeting, without fail, he came out feeling “something opened up,” and that the biggest lesson he learned is that you “have to keep advocating — people don’t know on their own.”

While there has been progress, Rifai sees three main challenges facing the industry: safety, security, and seamless travel; technology and its disruptive ability; and sustainability.

Security concerns should not be an excuse to stop travel, because that has the effect of punishing victims and helping aggressors, he said. While security is important, borders should remain open to legal travel, and the ease of movement between some countries should improve, Rifai added. The industry must also embrace technology, be more innovative, and learn to better use social media. As for sustainability, the challenge is not freezing progress, but about ensuring that the environment is preserved and enriched, Rifai said.

“Walls between countries should disappear; walls should be lowered between visitors and host communities.”

— Taleb Rifai, secretary-general of the UNWTO

Tourism needs to change in some important ways to ensure that communities benefit from tourism development and that it is done in ways that are sustainable for the environment and society, he said.

“Walls between countries should disappear; walls should be lowered between visitors and host communities,” Rifai said.

The model of tourists being isolated in bubbles of all-inclusive resorts will not be sustainable, and while that model may have helped some developing countries jump start their tourism sectors, it’s a model that has to change, he said. And tourists in the future will demand it. All-inclusive resorts could send guests to local communities for performances or to eat in local restaurants, rather than providing all services in one place, which could spur locally owned business growth and raise the standard of life.

Governments can provide incentives or tax breaks to companies or resorts that buy products from businesses in the community or achieve high levels of local employment, he said. Governments can also help set up financial systems and train communities so that they can open shops or cafes and take advantage of tourism-related economic growth.

While a shakeup of the industry might be necessary, there is also a business case for doing so, he said. The traveler of the future doesn’t want a closed environment, but wants to listen to local music and meet people; businesses that don’t adapt to those desires won’t succeed in the future, Rifai said.

While he was witness to and helped lead the organization through some important shifts as the industry’s profile as a tool for development grew, he also failed to bring in developed countries including the U.S., the U.K., Australia, and Canada into the UNWTO, which he considers one of his greatest failures, he said.

Most of those countries said that they didn’t have the money to contribute to the organization, but often politics were also at play. The U.S. used to be a member, but as tourism shifted to the states, there was no ministry or secretary that UNWTO could work with, Rifai said. Losing some of the developed countries didn’t put too much strain on the agency’s finances — although no country pays more than 3 percent of the organization’s budget, and the countries with the highest contributions pay $400,000, a small sum compared to what many of the countries give to other agencies.

Rifai is reticent to discuss his legacy. He speaks rather of the changes he’s observed. As his term wraps up at the end of the year, he will return to his native Jordan, where he hopes to work to create civic space for political discussions, and rest after years of a grueling travel schedule.

Read more Devex coverage on tourism.

About the author

  • Adva Saldinger

    Adva Saldinger is an Associate Editor at Devex, where she covers the intersection of business and international development, as well as U.S. foreign aid policy. From partnerships to trade and social entrepreneurship to impact investing, Adva explores the role the private sector and private capital play in development. A journalist with more than 10 years of experience, she has worked at several newspapers in the U.S. and lived in both Ghana and South Africa.