A CONVERSATION WITH UNWTO SECRETARY GENERAL TALEB RIFAI ON HOSTELS, YOUTH ENGAGEMENT AND THE FUTURE

I’m back home from Yerevan, Armenia after a successful annual meeting of Affiliate Members of the World Tourism Organization (UNWTO). Among the topics discussed by the group were city tourism, new niches in cultural tourism, marketing innovations and tourism’s future. As expected, the International Year of Sustainable Tourism was front and center as a near term focus for 2017. I’ll be sharing more on the International Year in future blog posts.

UNWTO Secretary General Taleb Rifai

UNWTO Secretary General Taleb Rifai

In my earlier post this week, UNWTO Secretary-General Taleb Rifai shared his views on millennials, tourism and peace. In this second part, he answers questions about hostels, youth engagement and the future.

RH: The youth hostel movement is more than 100 years old and recently hostels have been rediscovered by the tourism industry as part of the new millennial interest in shared experiences. Hostelling International (HI) hostels are focused on both lodging and cultural exchange. How do you see hostels, and HI hostels in particular, fitting into the travel and tourism industry?

Taleb Rifai: “HI hostels have focused for more than a century on global, cross-cultural tourism that enhances the travellers’ experience, while broadening their knowledge and understanding of destinations, cultures and the wider world around them. In this way they are a foundation of the sector we want to continue to develop. However, we should always remember that sustainability needs to be at the heart of tourism. As I mentioned earlier, the millennial interest in shared experiences also encompasses responsible tourism experiences that benefit the planet and its people.

Therefore, hostels will surely remain relevant and competitive as they thrive to develop and deliver quality, innovative, ethical and attractive tourism experiences that increase the added value of the sector, champion sustainability and optimize benefits for hostels, visitors and the local community. Technology-driven changes have meant that there can never again be one-way communication between hostel and visitor. Tourists demand a meaningful dialogue with service providers and hostels are no exception.”

RH: Hostelling International recently used blogging as a creative way to engage millennial travelers. Is this the sort of initiative that you see as relevant?

Taleb Rifai: “HI’s Big Blog Exchange was a highly effective case study of facilitating cultural exchange among the millennial generation through blogs and bloggers. Travellers were invited to exchange places with other travellers for 10 days and report their experience in a blog or social media platform. This engaged some 2,000 bloggers from 177 countries around the world, promoting HI hostels and the hostelling movement whilst giving new generations a first-hand experience of travel as a force for good and a passport to peace around the world.

Such cultural exchange initiatives have an important place in the new travel and tourism landscape. They are an important market opportunity to be embraced by the entire hospitality sub-sector, but particularly hostels given their strong interest in promoting intercultural understanding.”

RH: If you could wish young people of all walks of life one thing related to travel and tourism, what would that be?

Taleb Rifai: “I would say travel for good. For the good of the planet and its people, but also for their own good as travel makes us better people.

Yes, if I could wish for one thing for young people, it is that they remember that tourism is a transformative movement that can effect real and positive change in the world. And I would like young people to become the leading lights of the tourism sector.

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With HI senior staff leader Brianda Lopez (right) at the UNWTO Affiliate assembly in Armenia

Tourism is a people’s sector, built upon the millions of encounters that happen every day between visitors and hosts and between people of every corner of the world. But tourism is also a people’s sector because everyone’s individual actions have a global impact. Right now there are nearly 1.2 billion people travelling internationally every year. Our small responsible action may seem inconsequential, but just imagine the widespread impact of that action multiplied 1.2 billion times.

More than 23% of these 1.2 billion people are youth travellers. This growth represents tremendous opportunities for sustainable development. For example, when youth travellers visit local communities they provide a boost to local tourism businesses, closer social interaction and improved understanding between visitors and hosts, and more voices championing environmental protection and preservation of our common culture and heritage. The more this sector of tourism grows, the more chance we have to shepherd the world into a cleaner, fairer and more prosperous future.

And our forecasts show that by the year 2030, the number of international tourists will reach 1.8 billion. Imagine the impact of 1.8 billion tourists on the ground; on the environment, the social fabric and the economy.

In this spirit I also invite youth to join us in spreading this important message next year, as we celebrate 2017 as the year declared by the United Nations as the International Year of Sustainable Tourism for Development. This is a celebration for everyone. An opportunity to make tourism a driver in constructing a more equitable, more inclusive, more peaceful and more sustainable world.”

Learn more about the World Tourism Organization (UNWTO), the United Nations Specialized Agency for Tourism, and the UN International Year of Sustainable Tourism for Development. UNWTO’s membership includes 157 countries, 6 Associate Members, and 500 Affiliate Members representing the private sector, educational institutions, tourism associations and local tourism authorities.

This post first appeared on Thursday October 6th in my Huffington Post blog.

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