A CONVERSATION WITH UNWTO SECRETARY GENERAL TALEB RIFAI ON MILLENIALS, TOURISM AND PEACE

I’m in Yerevan, Armenia, for the opening day of the annual meeting of companies and organizations who are part of the World Tourism Organization (UNWTO) Affiliate Programme.  UNWTO, the United Nations Specialized Agency for Tourism, is responsible for promoting responsible, sustainable and universally accessible tourism worldwide. At this meeting delegates from around the globe will be discussing trends, best practices and transformative ideas, with a special focus on the upcoming 2017 International Year of Sustainable Tourism for Development.  I’m here as part of the delegation from Hostelling International/International Youth Hostel Federations, which is a Vice Chair of the Affiliate Group.

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UNWTO Secretary General Taleb Rifai

UNWTO’s leader is Secretary-General Taleb Rifai.   He is widely recognized for his inclusive, forward looking efforts to build a travel and tourism sector that embraces economic, environmental and social aims.   In this first of a two part interview, he speaks about millennials, tourism and peace. 

RH: The shared economy has been largely led by millennials and is changing the face of travel and tourism.  What other millennial-led or supported changes have you seen or expect to see that are affecting the industry?

Taleb Rifai: “The millennial generation was the first to grow up in this Internet Age, which is very different from the world of 30 years ago. The so called ‘sharing economy’ is a product of this age and an example of how technology has shifted power from governments to citizens and from companies to consumers. It is a model driven by the quest for new products and new experiences and technology developments. Other important millennial-driven changes are the way social media and user content is driving our sector, as well as the growing shift from the more ‘traditional’ models of tourism towards more ‘experiential’ tourism, where travellers look for more creative and authentic experiences that make them feel as if they live like a local.” 

RH: How do you see these millennial attitudes and interests shaping wider tourism trends?

Taleb Rifai: “A component of such ‘experiential tourism’ is the pursuit of educational tourist experiences, be that studying, volunteering, working abroad or learning a foreign language. These changes give tourists greater exposure to, and a better understanding of, local culture, assets and experiences. This millennial-led tourism continues to grow through today’s new, post-millennial generation of travellers.We also trust that millennials are more sensitive to responsible tourism and thus motivated to make sustainable impacts on their destinations. We are ushering in a new generation of tourism leaders who embody these changes. With that generation comes an immense opportunity to make technology our ally in facilitating safe and seamless travel, in resource efficiency and sustainable development of tourism, and in the preservation of our common values and our culture.”

RH: We all wish for the link between tourism and peace to be strengthened.  How do you see those connections growing stronger over time?

Taleb Rifai: “We live in the Age of Travel. Never before have we been more exposed to such a melting pot of ethnicities, religions and lifestyles. Travel breaks down walls and builds bridges between visitors and hosts, nurturing peace, respect and mutual understanding, values so much needed in this often divided world. Tourism is a cornerstone of pluralism and an effective way of bridging the divides.

I joined IYHF senior staffer Brianda Lopez to represent IYHF

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

The more people travel and immerse themselves in other societies, navigate other languages, behold incredible monuments and natural wonders, or experience firsthand the living traditions passed down by generations, the more they become part of a global dialogue that makes us citizens of the same world; citizens that understand and respect each other.”

RH: With your leadership, the United Nations has embraced “sustainable tourism for development” as a special theme for 2017. Does youth have a role to play?

Taleb Rifai: “Last December, the UN General Assembly declared 2017 as the International Year of Sustainable Tourism for Development. This is a golden opportunity to promote to a global audience, and at the highest political level, the value of tourism to economic growth, cultural and environmental protection, mutual understanding and peace. It is also an opportunity for youth to be ambassadors for each of these pillars of sustainable development. As the Lead Agency for its implementation, UNWTO wholeheartedly invites the involvement of youth in the activities of the International Year.Beyond the immediate role of tourism in peace building, we should never forget that one of the building blocks of peace is equality and social inclusion. In this respect, tourism provides opportunities for empowering youth and host communities by creating jobs where they are needed, and is often one of the leading sectors in post-conflict areas to bring normalcy and create economic prospects.”

Millennials will have a growing role in shaping tourism and its impact. The second part of this interview will be published on Thursday, October 6.   In it we’ll explore hostels, youth engagement and the future. UNWTO’s membership includes 156 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 Monday October 3rd in my Huffington Post blog.

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