Taleb Rifai

Taleb Rifai served as the Deputy Secretary-General of the World Tourism Organization (UNWTO) from February 2006 to February 2009. After which he took over the role of UNWTO’s Secretary-General as interim on 1 March 2009. He shares his views on an exclusive interview with Travel And Tour World.

Travel And Tour World – You have been the Secretary-General of the UNWTO since 2010. How has been the journey so far? Have there been any stark changes in the tourism-realm in these four years?

Mr.Taleb Rifai : I have been very fortunate to witness important milestones for the tourism sector during my tenure as UNWTO Secretary-General.

2012 in particular was a standout year for tourism, when we celebrated, for the first time,the record number of one billion tourists traveling the world in a single year. In 2012, tourism also gained greater recognition in two major global summits, the UN Conference on Sustainable Development (Rio+20) and the G20 Summit in Mexico, whereinworld leaders acknowledged tourism´s important contribution to some of the world´s most pressing challenges, including sustainable development, job creation to green innovation.This recognition at the highest levels of government is a major step for the tourism sector because it paves the way for the implementation of national and international policies in support of the sector´s growth, delivering a more wide scale, global impact of tourism´s benefits to socioeconomic growth and development.




Travel And Tour World – Improved tourism management has almost become synonymous with sustainable tourism. What else do you think would be important for the improvement of innovative biodiversity-based tourism?

Mr.Taleb Rifai : Improving tourism management is fundamental to ensure sustainable tourism development. I would like to recall that the concept of sustainable tourism entails three pillars – economic, social and environmental – and that when we talk about sustainable tourism we talk about “tourism that takes full account of its current and future economic, social and environmental impacts, addressing the needs of visitors, the industry, the environment and host communities”

As per the specific issue of biodiversity, biodiversity is one of tourism´s greatest assets. Millions of tourists are drawn every year to the world´s natural wonders and engage in biodiversity-centered activities such as snorkeling, wildlife watching or trekking.Tourism can thus be an ideal vehicle for raising awareness of the world´s biodiversity and the need for its conservation and protection. This entails responsible and careful management and ethical choices in tourism development so it can provide the much needed support for nature conservation and create employment opportunities for local communities.

In this regard, UNWTOhas been working for many years, through its Unit on Tourism and Biodiversity based in Bonn, Germany, to develop biodiversity-related tourism products and promote biodiversity based tourism projects. Among these is the Destinations Flyways project, currently finalizing its preliminary phase. Tapping into the ever growing interest in migratory birds, the project aims to develop innovative sustainable tourism products in key destinations along some of the world´s major migratory bird routes in Africa, Asia and Europe, channelling tourism revenue intobiodiversity conservation whilecreating employment opportunities for local communities.

We have likewisestepped up our efforts in addressing the increasing problem of wildlife poachingin Africa,calling for the attention of the tourism sector to this immense threat to the continent’struly unique biodiversity, which in turn jeopardises tourism in Africa and the millions of people earning their livelihoods from it.

These are just a few examples of our initiatives to protect and promote biodiversity as tourism´s natural capital and fundamental to the sector´s long-term growth.




Travel And Tour World: UNWTO referred to its guiding policy document – the Global Code of Ethics for Tourism (GCET) – on the occasion of International Human Rights Day last year. What role does the protection and promotion of human rights in tourism play in the work of UNWTO?

Mr.Taleb Rifai : Human Rights are at the core of UNWTO’s mandate as the UN Specialized Agency for Tourism.As stated in our statutes, the “fundamental aim of the Organization shall be the promotion and development of tourism with a view to contributing to economic development, international understanding, peace, prosperity, and universal respect for, and observance of, human rights and fundamental freedoms for all without distinction as to race, sex, language or religion”. This mandate translates into all our activities.

Furthermore, the promotion of human rights is at the very root of the UNWTO Global Code of Ethics for Tourism, which asserts the right of every person to travel, and puts a spotlight on the needs of the most vulnerable groups of society, emphasizing namely the protection of children from all forms of exploitation in tourism, the equality and empowerment of women, accessibility in tourism infrastructure for persons with disabilities and the elderly, and equal opportunities for the socioeconomically disadvantaged.




Travel And Tour World: What is the theme for world tourism day 2014?

Mr.Taleb Rifai : The theme of World Tourism Day for 2014 is Tourism and Community Development, which will highlight tourism´s great potential to empower individuals and groups of people by providing them with the skills needed to prompt change in their local communities, leading to the development of stronger, more independent and resilient communities around the world. With the special focus on the community, WTD 2014 emphasizes how tourism can be integral to advancing sustainable development from the grassroots level, by involving the local population in the decision-making process.

The official celebrations this year will be held in the city of Guadalajara in Mexico, and we hope that this is a widely celebrated day in all countries and communities worldwide.




Travel And Tour World:’Tourism and Water: Protecting our Common Future’ – how do you think it raised awareness in water access and shine a spotlight on the sector’s contribution to a more sustainable water-future?

Mr.Taleb Rifai : World Tourism Day 2013 focused onthe links between tourism and water at two levels: first considering that water is a precious tourism resourcefor businesses and destinations around the world, comprising the coastlines and wetlands, which are also some of the biggest tourism draws, and second on the responsibility and leadership role that tourism, can, and should have, in the preservation of such precious resource.

WTD 2013 helped raise awareness of the impacts that excessive water consumption, climate change and weak water management have on the world´s precious water resources. More importantly, WTD 2013 emphasized the role of tourism in contributing to water conservation and preservation. It called for greater initiatives among tourism establishments to promote and implement initiatives for water conservation, as well as water-conscious actions among tourists while traveling. Keeping in mind that there are over a billion tourists traveling the world today, even the smallest of efforts in water conservation – like reusing hotel towels or turning off the tap while brushing your teeth – can contribute to a formidable worldwide movement towards a more sustainable water future.



Travel And Tour World: What are the major policies and measures that will be discussed at the 1st UNWTO European conference on accessible tourism at San Marino? What changes should the tourism authorities adapt to in order to bring major changes to tourism legislations and systems in regards to accessible tourism?

Mr.Taleb Rifai : People with disabilities have equal rights to tourism services and opportunities, and in this respect, the facilitation of tourist travel among persons with disabilities and special needs is a vital component of responsible and sustainable tourism development. The First UNWTO European Conference on Accessible Tourismwill address the differentways to maintain and develop quality, sustainability and competitiveness in accessible tourism. Such measures are outlined in the Recommendations on Accessible Tourism for All, which was adopted at UNWTO´s General Assembly in August 2013, offering the tourism sector clear information on creating accessible tourism destinations through universally designed environments, reasonable accommodation, and special staff training, among others.

Moreover, accessible tourism does not just benefit persons with disabilities, it benefits us all. As more individuals enjoy the opportunity to travel, the tourism sector receives more visitors, enjoys longer seasons and more income. Society as a whole benefits from newly created job opportunities, revenue and an accessible environment for residents and visitors alike.



Travel And Tour World: Thailand has been ranked among the world’s highest in terms of growth in tourism receipts in 2013. Which country is competing to its best in 2014’s first quarter?

Mr.Taleb Rifai : Indeed, Thailand was in 2013, the 7thcountry in the world in terms of income generated by international tourism, this is, international tourism receipts .



Travel And Tour World: With the airline industry facing the strangest mystery ever with the missing of MH370, how do you think this affected the mindset of tourists traveling in the same route? Isn’t this a big time question on safety, specially when there are scoops regarding the hijack of the plane?

Mr.Taleb Rifai : The disappearance of MH370 was a tragedy and our thoughts at UNWTO are with the families and friends at this difficult time.While we cannot speculate on the mindsets of tourists in this particular situation, from previous experience we know that tourism is a generally very resilient sector.

As per the issue of air travel safety and security, we are confident in and closely follow the efforts of our sister UN Agency, the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO), which is working to provide recommendations and advancing new technical solutions that could help avoid this type of tragic event in the future.



Travel And Tour World:How successful was the 8th edition of the World Congress on Snow and Mountain Tourism in terms of overcoming seasonality to support economic diversification?

Mr.Taleb Rifai : The 8th World Congress of Snow and Mountain Tourism, which gathered in Andorra 450 participants from 31 countries, was very important to stress the need of mountain destinations to create new products and invest in innovative marketing if they want to overcome seasonality and attract tourists outside the winter season. The Congresses highlighted environmental sustainability, the active engagement of local communities, innovation, the use of new technologies, and improved accessibility in mountain destinationsas key factors to address the challenge of seasonality.



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