Over the past four days, I have had a first-hand view of the United Nations World Tourism Organization at its 21st General Assembly in Medellin, Colombia. For those who believe in the power of travel to make a positive difference, this is an experience to be shared.
I am attending the General Assembly as the delegate of the International Youth Hostel Federation/ Hostelling International. The UNWTO is a United Nations agency charged with the promotion of “responsible, sustainable and universally accessible tourism.” Every two years, it holds a general meeting of country members and affiliate members from around the world to make decisions and elect officers.
Each morning nearly 1000 attendees fill Medellin’s modern conference center with an eclectic mix of political pragmatism and business realism (as well as an essential dose of idealism). The audience consists mainly of senior tourism officials from more than 150 countries, yet the atmosphere lacks pretension. Rank is certainly important to meeting protocol, but largely disregarded in individual conversation. Informal discussions among delegates prove to be a powerful way to ferment creative ideas and new relationships.
IYHF was accepted as an affiliate member last year by UNWTO, making us part of a group of more than 450 non-governmental travel and tourism organizations worldwide who have a seat at the table. And our seat just got elevated.
Two days ago in an election held among affiliate members, IYHF was elected as a vice chair of the global affiliate group. It’s quite a match: IYHF’s declared values of education and understanding, sustainability, and affordable access to travel, all align well with UNWTO’s aims. It’s a relationship with some potentially amazing synergies.
Yet, I’ll admit my hesitation when the first day kicked off with a several hour long discussion around the importance of increasing airline competition and lowering visa barriers. On the surface, neither had much relevance to the lofty conference theme of “Fostering Inclusive Development and Social Transformation”, until I realized that high airfares and visa fees hold a social consequence in developing countries and elsewhere: they discourage travel by those who can least afford it.
As the General Assembly agenda moved forward, delegates received presentations about a range of recent UNWTO activity, including:
- Advancing a worldwide sustainable tourism agenda
- Promoting a Global Code of Ethics for Tourism
- Supporting tourism as a poverty reduction tool
These are topics that many hostel stakeholders can get motivated about. And they are issues of growing relevance to the public at large as well. The UNWTO is seeking to widen global awareness and the pace of progress.
As an affiliate member and group vice chair, IYHF now has the chance to make a wider contribution to the global travel and tourism community. And UNWTO has the opportunity to partner with one of the leading youth travel organizations in the world.
It doesn’t stop there. As one of more than 60 national associations that constitute IYHF, HI USA will have new opportunities to align our education and engagement programs with a United Nations organization we already support through activities like Sleep for Peace.
And most exciting, those who will experience the benefits are our stakeholders: our volunteers, our guests and other program participants, our hostels and our communities who host them.