UN World Tourism Organisation secretary general Taleb Rifai has spent seven and a half years persuading governments around the world of the importance of travel and tourism. He spoke to Ian Taylor

Taleb Rifai may not be alone in demanding tourism be taken seriously on the global stage, but the UN World Tourism Organisation (UNWTO) secretary general leads from the front.

Now in his eighth year at the UNWTO, Rifai has met with 84 heads of government during his time in office, some more than once.

His counterpart at the private sector World Travel & Tourism Council, WTTC president and chief executive David Scowsill, has joined him at these meetings. So the impending departure of both figures – Scowsill in June, Rifai at the end of the year – marks the end of an era in the global leadership of the sector.

Rifai, who took over at the UNWTO in January 2010, says: “The UNWTO has become different to what it was. It’s not just interested in the growth of the sector, but in what tourism can do for the people of the planet.

“The good of the industry comes from its connecting to bigger objectives – creating jobs, creating growth. This is a major transformation.

He views his legacy as persuading governments “to see tourism in a serious light and as a force for good”.

His final year at the UNWTO has been designated by the UN as the International Year of Sustainable Tourism for Development.

Rifai says: “It’s an acknowledgment of the importance of our sector by the international community.

“It’s an opportunity to spotlight tourism as a transformative force that can make the world a better place and promote changes in policy that make this happen.

“It’s a UN year and the UN represents the international will.

“We can’t expect miracles, but it’s an opportunity to concentrate our efforts, to work together, to raise awareness and to promote policies and actions.”

The UNWTO launched the year at Spanish travel trade show Fitur in Madrid in January, with the slogan ‘TravelEnjoyRespect’ and is in talks with private sector partners to distribute promotional material on flights and in hotels.

Rifai says: “We have a series of events, with our General Assembly in China in September and a big event planned in Jamaica in November. But what happens in between is more important. The whole idea is promotion.”

US travel ban ‘violates principles’, but ‘US the loser’

However, the year did not get off to an auspicious start with President Trump’s executive order in January imposing a ban on travel to the US from a series of Muslim majority countries.

The ban remains suspended by a US court, despite an administration attempt to reintroduce the order in March.

Rifai says: “There are two levels of concern. The first is at the level of principle – of human rights, of freedom, of non-discrimination. This travel ban violates all these.

“The second concerns the economic benefits of tourism. Of course, there is human suffering, people stranded, separated from their families. But beyond that, people will not gain the benefits of tourism.

“The US will suffer. It risks going back to a period when the US was not seen as welcoming.”

He adds: “The justification by the administration is based on an assumption that outsiders perpetrate these [terrorist] acts. It’s questionable. Most [acts of terror] in the US and elsewhere have been perpetrated by internal elements.”

Asked if he foresees mirror responses by other states, Rifai says: “Realistically, you don’t go tit for tat with a superpower. But this is not just about economic benefits. It’s an issue of respect and national pride. It’s a political issue.”

He says: “I’m not hopeful [about what follows]. The damage is done. Jobs will be lost. Businesses will suffer.

The Trump administration’s behaviour has been in sharp contrast to its predecessor, with the Obama administration hailed as the most-friendly US government towards travel and tourism there has been.

Rifai says: “A study showed that every 43 tourism visas issued to the US created one US job. There was tremendous progress made with the previous administration – on visa facilitation, on the relaxation [on visas] with China.

“Can this be salvaged? Nothing is irreparable. [But] the real damage will fall on the US. Travel and tourism has opened up the entire world. The US is not the only destination.

“If the US is inaccessible, it’s the problem of the US. Ultimately, international tourism will not fall victim of this.

“We stand by our forecast of 3%-4% growth a year in global tourism to 2030. Business will go somewhere else. Leisure travellers will go somewhere else.”

UK Sharm el-Sheik ban ‘totally unreasonable’

He has a similar message for the UK, but as an outbound market and in relation to Foreign Office travel advice – in particular, the continuing ban on UK flights to the Egyptian resort of Sharm el-Sheikh.

This was imposed following the destruction of a Russian holiday jet following take off from Sharm in October 2015 by a bomb, killing 224 passengers and crew.

The UK Foreign Office continues to advise against flights to Sharm el Sheik, citing “a heightened risk of terrorism against aviation”, but does not advise against visiting to Sharm.

Rifai asks: “How can you go to Sharm – by swimming?”

He describes such advice as “totally unreasonable”, saying: “We’re punishing the victim.  I was in Egypt and saw how many have lost jobs.

“Those who lose their jobs fall very easily into recruitment by terrorists. We’re making it impossible for countries to stand on their own feet.”

He says: “It’s not based on evidence on the ground. Tourism advisories should be made in concert with the destination authorities. But they are not listening – there is no dialogue. They [the Foreign Office] are not listening to their own diplomats.

“The flight ban especially is what is hurting. People are losing jobs. The airport looks like a ghost town.

“Britain says the airport is not secure enough. It’s politically based. The authorities in Egypt were willing to cooperate. They said, ‘Let them run the airport themselves’.

“Egypt is hurting. [But] recently, Egypt adopted a different line. It said: ‘The British are welcome, but if they don’t want to come, someone else will. Let’s look for other markets.’

“You’re the loser. They will not keep putting all their efforts into trying to convince Britain.”

‘People respect tourism now’

Rifai is undaunted. He says: “Ten years ago, tourism was not taken seriously. At the first meeting I had with the executive board of the United Nations – the heads of the UN agencies – I was introduced by the UN secretary general and I could see the smiles on faces.

“They were thinking ‘What is tourism doing here with industry, trade, health and education?’ Now they listen. That is a major change in how people see tourism.”

When he took the role, he adds: “The word ‘tourism’ was a challenge. People think tourism is about lying on a beach, having fun, but it’s about jobs and development.

“I would like to think my legacy is that people recognise this now and respect tourism.

“With David Scowsill, I’ve met 84 presidents and prime ministers around the world,” he says. “Each and every one ended the meeting by saying tourism is a sector they must support.

“It has been the most demanding, most rewarding job of my life. Every member country has become part of our family. I know the tourism ministers of 160 countries by their first name.

Last week Rifai was at the WTTC Global Summit in Bangkok. This week he attended the World Tourism Forum in Lucerne. His schedule sees him travel typically three weeks in every four.

Rifai says: “Travel is a pleasure, but flying has become taxing. I look forward to the next visit, but not to the next flight. It’s the only major drawback [of the job]. It’s physically very demanding.”

He regrets failing to bring the US or UK, two of the world’s major source and destination markets, back into the organisation.

“I would have liked to bring the UK and US back in,” he says. “We work day to day with people in the UK and the US. I hope my successor can do it.”

More important, he says: “I hope the main objective [of my successor] will be to present travel and tourism as a social force, as an economic force, not as something on its own.”

Rifai is too astute a diplomat to offer an opinion on his successor, who will be selected by the UNWTO executive council from among six candidates next week.

But he says: “The new head has to do what they do in their own way. My predecessor was absolutely different from me in personality and character. It does not have to be the same style – it is a different time, a different period.”