UNWTO Secretary General Taleb Rifai attends his last ITB Berlin in this position – exclusive interview
After 18 years as a faithful ITB Berlin participant, UNWTO Secretary-General Taleb Rifai participated for the last time in this position at this year’s show. At the official launch ceremony, he stated that he shall miss this show, and all the people here, very much. This is Taleb Rifai’s final year as UNWTO Secretary-General, a position he has held for almost seven years. In that time, the Secretary General has been a champion for tourism as a vector for peace and understanding, a force for good, and particularly this year, a force for sustainable development. Arriving at ITB Berlin 2017, we asked him what he sees as being the most important factors affecting the global tourism market today…
At UNWTO we have three major priority areas that coincide with the concerns that the sector faces: technology and its impact in tourism, safe, secure and seamless travel and sustainable tourism. This latter receives a particular attention as we are celebrating the International Year of Sustainable Tourism in 2017, a unique opportunity to advance towards a more responsible sector.
You have often spoken in the past about the importance of opening borders. The world seems to be taking a different direction today. How do you feel about that?
Building walls will lead us nowhere. We have witnessed a great development of new technologies and security measures and these should be put at the service of all of us so that we travel in a more secure, easy and fast manner. At UNWTO we advocate the role of tourism in bridging us all and in promoting intercultural exchanges, so needed in current times. Moreover, closing borders will have negative impacts first and foremost on those opting for isolationism.
I AM PROUD TO HAVE HEADED A PROJECT THAT HAS ENHANCED THE ROLE OF TOURISM AND THAT HAS POSITIONED THE SECTOR AT THE CORE OF THE AGENDA 2030 AND THE SUSTAINABLE DEVELOPMENT GOALS
At ITB Berlin you have a number of activities, not the least of which is the Silk Road Ministers’ Meeting. How is the Silk Road project impacting tour operators today and what does the future hold?
The Silk Road is not a recently created invention. It is a cultural, economic and social Route that has existed for centuries, linking peoples from different backgrounds. It is currently very alive because all humans are seeking for the values that this Route promotes. Our Silk Road Tourism Programme is very strong and is working with 33 countries to advance issues of visa facilitation, product development and marketing of the Silk Road.
What are the stakes of this year’s meetings?
We have a varied agenda with many topics of interest, but the International Year of Sustainable Tourism for Development will lead the debates as this is a unique opportunity that will pave the development of the tourism sector in the years to come.
This is your last year as Secretary- General of the UNWTO. What do you hope to have left as a legacy, and what is your vision for the future of this industry?
I am proud to have headed a project that has enhanced the role of tourism and that has positioned the sector at the core of the Agenda 2030 and the Sustainable Development Goals. This is actually what UNWTO had in its objectives for the last decades but we had to advocate the relevance of tourism in current economies in order to get the overwhelming response that we are getting during this International Year.