The World Travel & Tourism Council, an advocacy group of over 100 travel company CEOs who lobby governments to lower tourism taxes and make crossing borders easier, has taken a leadership position in making the industry’s case to governments. Its scholarly country reports assessing national economic benefits of tourism have been cornerstones for tourism ministers and private sector leaders from Australia to the United States, some 26 countries in all, to better make their case within the often frustrating national political apparatus.
One can never question the amazing power of the industry. The aforementioned initiative by Colombia’s travel agent association to bring the benefits of tourism to rural areas stands in line with the industry’s unwavering charity after natural and manmade disasters. It is often the travel industry providing immediate, needed aide via hotel rooms to displaced victims, relief flights operated by those big bad airlines and ground service providers giving use of their buses and vans to move relief workers around. It is an industry that quickly mobilizes around friends in crisis, such as after the Japanese tsunami, where it banded together to assist in the recovery.
It might be surprising then that one issue that was not on the agenda, and officials were not keen to discuss is the refugee crisis in Europe. As hundreds of thousands of displaced peoples put their lives at risk for the hope of a better life ahead in Europe and perhaps the United States and Canada, and more hundreds of thousands are likely to follow, it would seem that there is a magnificent opportunity for the travel and tourism industry at both the private and public level to raise collective and individuals hands. To start with, some type of offer directly or via knowledge support programs to offer training to refugees who end up in their countries and countries where they have operations could be a good place to start.
Naturally this is a sticky issue, and like the divergent interests of aviation ministers who want to protect the national carrier versus the tourism minister who wants to bring more revenue to his or her country, the responsibility for policy and law regarding the refugees is clearly outside the scope of either UNWTO or most of its attendees.
Yet, like the opening discussion about airlines, solving the refugee crisis is important for the tourism industry. As one senior leader noted to me, Europe’s tourism business is a north to south operation, still heavily dependent on cars and ferries. Southern Europe, which is heavily dependent on compatriots from the north driving to their resorts, will be gravely impacted if closed borders or extreme delays in crossing borders impact road travel.
The industry, I can understand, has to be sensitive to domestic political concerns. Certainly it is other ministries that will be responsible for the processing of refugees their countries accept. How will these refugees be assimilate into their new communities? One senior person said, from what he has seen, many of the refugees are families, who have taken an epic journey in the hopes of finding a better future for their children. He said, they come with a desire to work hard and succeed.
Perhaps it is also a good opportunity for the tourism industry to spotlight the critical role it plays in the world, the tremendous employment it generates and the social good that tourism can bring. A simple pledge by private sector companies in conjunction with governments where the refugees are being relocated to offer the refugees opportunities to pursue jobs in tourism might be a relatively easy place to start.
Perhaps there are already some subterranean efforts underway, but I put this forward in case not. And, while I am not sure which industry group or leader should step to the forefront with ideas on how tourism can play a critical role in supporting the refugees, I can’t think of a better opportunity for such a magnificent industry to step into the spotlight and show the world why it’s not only the business of happiness and love, but prosperity, hope and the key to a better life.
Who knows, maybe one of the refugee children we see in these heart wrenching news shoots will one day be back on CNN or BBC as CEO of a major tourism company, telling the world how travel and tourism gave his family a chance at a new future.
Reprinted with permission from the author.