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November 28, 2021

Taleb Rifai speaks out on terrorism and tourism safety


Taleb Rifai, secretary-general of the World Tourism Organization, was interviewed by Elena Sevillano, a journalist based in Madrid, home of UNWTO.

Elena points out Taleb Rifai believes the best way to respond to terrorists is to continue visiting the attacked countries.

In the exclusive interview Elena Sevillano speaks about safety, terrorism, all very real issues facing the global travel and tourism industry. Terror has made tourism to their number one target and enemy.

Jordan’s Taleb Rifai (1949), secretary-general of the World Tourism Organization (UNWTO), takes advantage of every opportunity to highlight the role of tourism as a catalyst for development and a source of wealth. In Sri Lanka, where this interview was held, Rifai stressed how this industry even helps to heal the wounds of conflict such as that experienced by this Asian country as recently as just seven years ago. The conversation, however, drifted towards what is perhaps the greatest current threat faced by the sector: terrorism.

It had been a couple of weeks since the attack at the Turkish airport; the attack in Nice occurred the day after the interview.

Question: Tourists could not go to entire areas in Sri Lanka until 2009 because of the war. How do you open up a country to tourism after a conflict?

In Asia, Vietnam and Cambodia are great examples. I am from the generation that grew up with the Vietnam War and the atrocities in Cambodia, the bloody conflict that gripped the country for so many years. No one could imagine at the time that today Vietnam and Cambodia are associated only with beautiful things. It’s amazing and it was tourism that made it happen. In Eastern Europe, we have the example of Croatia and Slovenia. Croatia was at the centre of a civil war when Yugoslavia was dissolved in the 1990s. Today it receives 12 million tourists. Today, only beaches and beautiful places come to mind: not a trace of the war.

Q: Tourists seek safety when travelling. How do you manage to transform the image as an unsafe place of a country that has suffered a war or an attack?

I always say that what matters, what is most important, is political will. If the government decides that tourism is a good thing for the country, it will go in that direction. It will work. There is no completely safe country in the world. Anything can happen anywhere. That is why the issue of security is a consideration, of course, but it is not all that is on the table. When you travel you think about how expensive, how beautiful or how attractive a place is, what experiences I’ll take back with me and also about safety. It does not determine whether you go or not. They can kill or rob you on the streets of the safest cities in the world. It should not be something that prevents destinations from promoting themselves.

Q: It is true that today something bad can happen around every corner, but now there are countries that appear regularly in the media as targets of terrorist attacks. Think of Egypt, Tunisia, Turkey. How does it affect their tourism industry and their economy?

No country should be classified as safe or unsafe forever, because anything can happen anywhere. It is a global malady.

Q: But travellers do.

That is why we must ask them to please not make that classification. Because today security is no longer something you can guarantee.

Q: Going back to these countries. It must be difficult to fight against the stigma.

Yes, unfortunately some of them have been attacked more than once and seem to have become targets of some of these terrorist groups. The effect has been always been dramatic and immediate. When something happens in a country, people stop going, but it’s a short period. Experience shows us that recovery is quick, especially in countries with a long history and experience in welcoming travellers. Turkey, Egypt, Tunisia. Does it affect them? Of course it affects them. For how long depends on them. The recovery process can be really fast. Egypt has been a tourist destination for 7000-8000 years. That may change for a few months or a few years, but it will come back.

Q: Is there an example of good practice after such an event?

: What happened in Turkey a few weeks ago was highly significant. When Ataturk Airport was attacked, two things happened that give food for thought. The Turkish authorities put the airport into operation in 8 hours, as active as ever. It was an excellent example. If you compare it to other incidents, airports were closed for days, weeks. That’s a good way to respond to terrorists. You want to hurt us? You will not succeed. We are operational in less than 24 hours. Determination and political will are key.

Russia’s reaction. We are accustomed to traditional tourism generating countries that immediately impose travel restrictions. Germany, England, France, Russia, Sweden. They tell their nationals: don’t travel to these areas. Russia did exactly the opposite. That same afternoon it lifted the ban and said we want our citizens to travel there.

Q: So, is that what needs to be done then?
: It is the best way to respond. Because—think about it—that’s what the terrorists want. They attack airports, hotels, beaches, restaurants… They attack tourist infrastructure, like it or not, because they know that is where it hurts. They cause economic and political damage because they damage the country’s image. When they do it, they expect people to stop travelling to Turkey or Egypt. So the only way to defeat them is to continue travelling to those countries. Send the message that we are back in operation. In fact, the places that have been attacked are the safest in the world right after because security is even greater. To countries I say: Please do not rush to issue advisories against tourism. Let’s not fall into that trap.

Q: Has the perception of insecurity following the attacks contributed to the tourism records of Spain?
A: I don’t agree with that approach. Our figures prove that what we are assuming, that Spain benefits from the misfortunes of others, is not correct. All the tourists lost in the three countries are no more than 2.5 million. If they all decided to go to Spain, which is impossible because they go to other places it still would not explain the growth, which is three times higher. Yes, there may be an effect, but it is not factor in why tourism is growing in Spain. To assume that Spain is doing well because others are doing poorly is unfair to Spain. Spain is performing well because it is doing a good job, not because others are suffering. Perhaps 10% or 15% of the tourists of these countries may go to Spain, but that does not explain the increase.

Q: Can we handle so much tourism? Barcelona has warned on several occasions that it has trouble managing it. Why?

First of all, you cannot say no to tourism. I think in Barcelona sufficient efforts are not being made. As a tourism destination, you have to create other attractions that pull tourists from the city centre, give them alternatives, create new destinations. Barcelona can do better, and I hope this is not understood as a criticism.

Q: How is Ana Botella working in your organization after you took her on board?

Very well. She is a very active person and did a lot for the tourism sector when she was mayor. I did not recruit her due to political affinities but rather for her enormous experience.

: Has she already produced a report?

Yes, and she is preparing a meeting of the network of mayors of tourism cities.

“We live in the era of travel,” you said at the conference in Sri Lanka. How does that translate into figures?

In 1950, after the end of World War II, and when the world was beginning to go back to normality, there were only 25 million international travellers crossing borders, according to our data. In 2015 we counted 1.184 billion. We are talking about 65 years over which we can see how much the number of travellers has multiplied. It’s tremendous. People are defying borders and travelling more and more. And it is not just the numbers, it’s the places. There is no longer any place that people do not travel to. We travel to the North Pole, the South Pole, the Amazon, deserts. The world has opened up in an incredible way. And it happened so fast that we are still adapting. It is something like what happened with the industrial revolution, 200-250 years ago. People were not aware of living in that era until a hundred years later. I am sure that in 40, 50, 60 years people will look back and characterize our time as the era of travel.

I think, historically, this is the time for people to move. Before, it was things that moved, trade was created, after that capital moved, with the creation of financial institutions, then information, now is the time for people to physically move, which is why I call it the era of travel.

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