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Up-close and personal with Taleb Rifai

Written by Nell Alcantara

Since taking office as the United Nations World Tourism Organization’s (UNWTO) secretary-general in May 2009, Taleb Rifai has been on a perpetual move, traipsing the globe from one travel and touris

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Since taking office as the United Nations World Tourism Organization’s (UNWTO) secretary-general in May 2009, Taleb Rifai has been on a perpetual move, traipsing the globe from one travel and tourism-related event to next with the hope of uniting the industry to speak under “one voice.” I caught up with him last month in Abu Dhabi during the World Travel & Tourism Council’s (WTTC) annual Global Tourism Summit to discuss his thoughts on four years as UNWTO’s leader.

Biggest Challenge and Achievements
The most important challenge has been and will continue to be raising awareness about the importance of the travel and tourism industry among political leaders and the public opinion in general. It has been my greatest obsession and it has been something that I have dedicated so much time to and still needs to be done. Governments are still not taking travel and tourism as serious as it truly is. The distance between what travel and tourism is doing on the ground in terms of job creation, income generation or contribution to national economies and to other aspects of life, the distance between that and the recognition of that is still wide and still needs to be reached. Consequent to this is the relevance of all of us as organizations that link under the umbrella, stakeholders whether it is governments or private sector like WTTC [World Travel & Tourism Council] or PATA [Pacific Asia Travel Association] or others. They derive their importance from the relevance of their industry. In many ways, this has been my greatest challenge.

Achievements I would connect with the biggest challenge. UNWTO in the last three to four years has gained tremendous visibility and has been seen in a more credible, respected, engaging light. Engaging is very important because the only way we can make some progress is by working together. One of the greatest achievements I would like to be remembered for is setting the example on working together.

Most Valuable Lesson
You must see the big picture before you get to become a prisoner of the small picture. It is very easy to keep wanting to protect your turf and seeing that your organization, your responsibilities, your position is the most important. And it is easy to forget that that can only happen if the entire picture, the entire sector, comes along as well. The success of others could be seen in two ways – competing against you and the other could be seen as part of your success. The big lesson that I’ve learned is to try to see the success of others as my own success.

For example, when WTTC holds a good meeting, it’s important that I feel I have achieved something. When there is a good forum in Macau that is done by the Macau Forum, it’s not organized by us but we’re there. If it’s a good event then it is important to see it as your event. When a country does something that is good, it’s good to see it as yours. You are there to serve the sector. If others are serving it as well, then they are helping you.

What would you have done differently as secretary-general?
I should have taken more attention and care to my internal affairs of the organization. I have dedicated much more time to the outside of the organization for obvious reasons. But in my second term, if all goes well, I would like to look a bit more into the set-up of the organization, on the inside. And make sure that I pay more attention to the great people that I have on my staff. This is something that I would have liked to have done and would like to do more if I have the chance to continue [as secretary general].

Ethics in Tourism
We have a global Code of Ethics that was approved 12 years ago and we have reformed the global committee on tourism ethics. A new committee will be formed in August at the General Assembly. I am hoping that the new committee will give new life to this function of responsible tourism, ethical tourism and start to associate our organization more and more with that. You will see UNWTO moving more into standards setting – guidelines, conventions, criteria that are all based on what is right for the industry. You will see UNWTO venturing more into the normative realm as opposed to the operational realm because this is where our real value is. We have the United Nations legitimacy which is still and will continue to be the uncontested embodiment of the international will, and we should be utilizing this more into setting standards.

Difficult Times
We are struggling with negative growth. Zero growth for the last four years and will probably continue like that. We can’t continue to depend on our traditional ways of funding through contributions of the members.

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About the author

Nell Alcantara