Q&A: UNWTO secretary-general on exploring Africa's sustainable tourism opportunities

Taleb Rifai, secretary general of the U.N. World Tourism Organization. Photo by: World Travel & Tourism Council / CC BY

As African leaders look for ways to diversify their economies, tourism has emerged as a way to create new jobs, attract foreign visitors and attract investments to build more integrated societies.

The United Nations General Assembly designated 2017 the International Year of Sustainable Tourism for Development, acknowledging the sector’s potential to contribute to the Sustainable Development Goals. If properly harnessed, tourism can both stimulate economic growth and contribute to preserving ecosystems and biodiversity, as well as cultural heritage.

Beyond ecotourism: What the travel sector can really do for development

Tourism has the potential to vastly improve lives and livelihoods in the communities in which it operates. But in the International Year of Sustainable Tourism for Development, experts tell Devex it needs an industry-wide effort.

Last week, the Republic of Congo welcomed delegations from a dozen African nations, international tour operators, sustainable tourism experts and private investors to discuss the challenge of making Africa a more attractive tourist destination.

Congo-Brazzaville can “distinguish itself as a green destination, as a responsible destination and a destination that presents itself as a sustainable tourism model,” United Nations World Tourism Organization Secretary-General Taleb Rifai told Devex on the sidelines of the event, hosted by his agency and the ministry of tourism and hobbies.

Rifai spoke to Devex about strategies to attract more international visitors to Africa, how local populations can benefit, and what sustainable tourism means in a region better known for crisis and insecurity. Our conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

What makes Congo-Brazzaville a good candidate for a sustainable tourism model?

It is managed well. The government is rather capable of doing things the way it wants to do, and it has a tremendously rich natural heritage and natural assets. Ten percent of the biggest forest in Africa exists in this small country, and I believe that more than 50 percent of the area of this country is declared as natural protection. Also, the forests they have are very rich forests.

Today while on a city tour, I saw these artists painting in one of the traditional neighborhoods in the city of Brazzaville. What came to my mind is that this could be an industry on its own. The city of Salamanca in Spain, for example, has built its claim to fame in teaching people Spanish. So if you want to learn Spanish anywhere in the world, the first place that comes to mind is Salamanca. Why doesn’t Brazzaville come to mind when it has something to do with art and talent and young people?

This is a tremendously beneficial type of tourism that is not very well known and is not very well in place. When you design two-to-three week courses, where you can have young artists come and stay for a month or two, you can have the economy rolling. They stay and bring money, they sell their things and spend other money, they rent apartments, they visit hotels, they go to restaurants. That is the kind of innovative thinking they should be doing here in Brazzaville, and they can do it. What they need is the political will.

This morning, in my meeting with the president of the Republic of Congo, I was very impressed with his understanding and developed details. I posed to him the complications that they have with [strict] visas and [a lack of] air connectivity. He went into so much detail. He is really a hands-on head of state, which is very useful and important. He believes tourism can be a part of the solution and can be part of the future of this country. That’s why I’m here, and that’s why I’m very optimistic about the future of this country.

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Tell us about the educational component of the agenda, providing the skills to professionalize the industry?

When I spoke to the president this morning, I brought up three issues. One is travel facilitation, or how to make it easy for people to come here, because it is still complicated. That includes visas and air connectivity, which are very complicated. Two, the need for promotion and branding and the need to invest some funds in marketing.

My third point was about human resources and training. He was absolutely supportive of that. The idea that we are proposing now is to identify one school or training institute that is here, and we are going to adopt it at UNWTO. Adopting it means we would embrace it, look at the curriculum, and try to support. The best way of providing good training is by making use of what already exists, not trying to recreate something that would be seen as a threat or competition. The government promised they would look at a good candidate from the schools and present it to us.

You have said that you believe tourism is part of the solution in this country. Do you think that tourism can be part of the solution in other countries facing challenges with security and poverty?

“Just as tourism needs a very safe and secure environment, safety and security needs tourism.”

— Taleb Rifai,secretary-general of the World Tourism Organization

Look at the example of Colombia in Latin America. Twelve to 15 years ago, Colombia started to get interested in tourism. It was still at the peak of the worst of the civil conflict. It worked.

I cannot claim that tourism was part of why they made peace, but it certainly helped. In Africa, like in any other country and region around the world, even when you have conflict, the entire country cannot be in conflict. There are some safe zones, some reasonably capable zones of receiving people, relatively calm zones — that’s where you have to start working. Why? Because just as tourism needs a very safe and secure environment, safety and security needs tourism.

Tourism can bring jobs, and jobs are the most important and most critical reason why there is instability in many parts of the world, and particularly in Africa. So, what Colombia succeeded in doing was saying, “come to Cartagena,” and then other regions started to see the benefits. So yes, I believe that tourism can work for Africa — even places that have conflict.

2017 is the Year of Sustainable Tourism for Development. With all that’s going on in the world around us, especially in Africa, how we can really push this effort among other competing priorities?

The world has never been better. The world is in good shape. Everyday is better than the day before, we just have to look at it from a very objective perspective.

The reason why we feel there is more famine, there is terrorism, there is this or that, is because anything you want is at the tip of your finger. By the time I finish this interview, I will have so many news alerts. That never happened 10-15 years ago. We hear more about each other, we’re more informed, and therefore we’re more involved. Because we are more involved, we are affected more, and because we are affected more, we care more. So we’re in a better world.

I don’t buy this idea that we have more pressing priorities. The world has never been better, and that’s why we think, in spite of everything, we need to move forward and make sure that whoever wants to travel can travel. Actually it accelerates the process of bringing people together, because that’s what we need.

We are in a country with great natural resources. Is it possible to bring tourists while still protecting the environment and wildlife?

Of course it’s possible. Can I be 100 percent sure? Of course, I can’t be. But I can tell you today one of the phrases that was picked up so enthusiastically by the president was “tourism is the oil that never runs out.” He liked that, and wanted to associate himself with it.

Can we bring in a lot of people and still protect the environment? I don’t know. Please understand what we are talking about. We are talking about the people here. We are talking about the real meaning of sustainability. Sustainability does not mean that we stop progress, or growth. The real challenge is how to grow and use the benefits and the revenues from growth to further protect the environment, in order to create more growth to further protect the environment, and so forth.

I am a firm believer that growth on one hand and sustainability and protection on another are not at all separate. Actually the best ally for the protection is tourism, but we have to manage it right.

Editor’s note: UNWTO facilitated Devex's travel and logistics for this reporting. However, Devex maintains full editorial control of the content.

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The views in this opinion piece do not necessarily reflect Devex's editorial views.

About the author

  • Christin Roby

    Christin Roby worked as the West Africa Correspondent for Devex, covering global development trends, health, technology, and policy. Before relocating to West Africa, Christin spent several years working in local newsrooms and earned her master of science in videography and global affairs reporting from the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University. Her informed insight into the region stems from her diverse coverage of more than a dozen African nations.