Image credit: WTTC - Photo: 2017

Asian-Fuelled Heritage Tourism Could Be An SDG Enabler

By Kalinga Seneviratne

BANGKOK (IDN) – The World Travel and Tourism Council (WTTC) Global Summit, held for the first time in Southeast Asia, pivoted on how Asia-fuelled tourism would impact the industry worldwide. The discussions also centred around whether tourism could be an enabler of Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) if it were heritage-focused offering community experiences – rather than “exotic” sites – so that significant leakages of tourism revenue could be tapped.

Financial leakages in tourism occur when revenues arising from tourism-related economic activities in destination countries are not available for re-investment or consumption of goods and services in the same countries. Financial resources ‘leak away’ from the destination country to another country, particularly when a tourism company is based abroad and when tourism-related goods and services are being imported to the destination country.

Addressing a media conference during the April 26-27 WTTC summit, Jamaica’s Tourism Minister Edmund Bartlett pointed out, quoting figures gathered by the UN Development Programme (UNDP), that 80 percent of tourist revenue from his country leaks out. For Thailand the leakage is 70 percent. On an average, 40-50 percent of tourist revenues generated by developing countries are leaking out. “Tourism is not (just) about hotels, it is a series of moving parts to offer an experience,” he said.

While international agencies point out that tourism is the world’s fastest growing industry, contributing more than 10 percent to global economic output, creating millions of jobs, especially in the developing countries, there are hardly any reliable figures about how much of the revenues accruing from tourism are actually benefiting the country where the holiday is spent.

“We in Jamaica have seen the leakages for a long time,” said Bartlett. Less than 1 percent of donor funding goes to tourism SMTE’s (small and medium size tourism enterprises) that need to be supported, especially in creative industries, to draw in tourists.

SDGs 4 and 12 are important benchmarks for such a policy, he said, because there is need for investments in better focused education to train people for the creative industries and promote responsible consumption and production so that tourists consume locally produced goods and services.

In an opening address to the Summit, WTTC’s secretary general David Scowcill argued that travel and tourism is transforming our world adding 7.6 trillion dollars to the world economy each year and accounting for over 300 million jobs. “The message is clear – travel is now seen as a driver of economic, social and cultural development around the world. It is a stimulus in transforming our world,” he said, however, cautioning that such growth should not be seen merely as business activity. Besides, jobs created should be about “self-worth and self-determination”.

The value of community oriented tourism to counter rising global intolerance and xenophobia was a common theme of the Summit. UN’s World Tourism Organisation (UNWTO) secretary general Taleb Rifai pointed out that over 1.2 billion tourists have crossed international borders in 2016, adding that “travel opens minds, opens eyes and opens hearts. We become better people when we travel.”

Former British Prime Minister David Cameron hit a similar note in a keynote address. “Threat of Islamic terrorism is a big threat to the tourism industry,” he said. “They want to plunge us into a medieval world of fear and oppression. Terrorism could have a devastating impact on tourism.” He added that when he was the prime minister, he had to think carefully before signing travel advisories for British citizens because “thwarting travel is what terrorists want”.

In an interview with the WTTC channel, Zimbabwe’s Tourism Minister Walter Mzembi argued that tourism growth needs to build on “people to people diplomacy”. “Tourism development,” he added, “cannot depend on benevolence and charity. We (the tourist industry) need to lead from the front to connect our destinations.”

This is exactly what Tony Fernandez, CEO of Air Asia, the region’s pioneering and most successful budget airline, said in a discussion. “ASEAN (Southeast Asian) tourism market is huge and I wanted to build connectivity,” he said, explaining how he circumvented national laws restricting the aviation industry by setting up joint-venture airlines in fellow ASEAN countries.

“Sixty percent of our routes were never done before,” he said and gave as an example the routes to the Chinese territory of Macau that opened a gateway for budget tourists to travel to Hong Kong and China cheaply.

Fernandez predicted that low cost airlines in Asia, where the tourist market is growing fastest, mainly propelled by regional demand and budget airlines, will be serving the mass market while national airlines will go upmarket. “Tourism is heading to a golden era (in Asia),” he predicted.

Other keynote speakers during the WTTC Global Summit drew attention to four SDGs that are very relevant to the tourism industry. These are: number 1 ‘No Poverty’, number 8 ‘economic growth and decent work’, number 12 ‘sustainable consumption and production’ and number 16 ‘peace and justice’.

Claire Bennett, Executive Vice President of the American Express said that young people like positive experiences during their travels. The corporation’s research has found that 97 percent value the protection of heritage. “This will lead to peace and justice,” she noted.

James Riley, CEO of Mandarin Oriental Hotels informed that they are contributing to SDG 8 by hiring locals wherever they set up a hotel and ensuring that their labour practices are non-exploitative. “SDGs are inherent in our business,” he assured. “Service industries like ours hire locals, help to develop their careers; we protect local heritage and buy local products.”

Mastercard released a survey showing that Asia-Pacific is the world’s fastest growing tourism market, making up 8.5 percent of the GDP (gross domestic product) of the region and generating 8.5 percent of total employment in 2016. Bangkok attracted the largest number of visitors: 19.3 million, and Thailand’s tourism sector has grown by 11 percent in 2016, generating revenues of 72 billion dollars.

With rising middle classes in China, India and Southeast Asia, most of the travellers now come from the region and the governments of ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) are promoting tourism as an ASEAN community building exercise. Thailand is leading the way by developing community based tourism products to experience their unique mainly Buddhist culture, the arts and cuisine (that has become popular across the world).

In a media release titled ‘Unique Thai Local Experience’, the Tourism Authority of Thailand (TAT) said, “More and more people are looking for real and authentic stories.” It added that the new tourism experiences being offered, not only encourage travellers to visit, but also to engage in cultural experiences in different parts of Thailand.

In a booklet accompanying the media release, TAT listed a variety of tourism experiences across the kingdom, mainly in rural areas ranging from local markets and street food to taking cooking classes, making their own fabrics and joining rice farmers in the field. All these are tourism products that are offered by local communities where almost all revenue generated will remain in the community.

India’s Amitabh Kant, CEO of NITI Aayog, told the summiteers, comprising predominantly western tourist industry leaders, that China and India with growing middle classes and travellers are changing the West-centric tourism growth model. “World markets will be disrupted,” he warned. “Hotels will have to change their (market) model to serve Indian and Chinese tourists.”

Kant predicted that Asia’s heritage would be a major factor in the growth of tourism and that also young Asians with wealth will penetrate global tourism markets. “Convergence of hard and soft power will help grow world tourism,” he declared, adding that traditions, values and heritage will also propel tourism growth. [IDN-InDepthNews – 29 April 2017]

Image credit: WTTC

IDN is flagship agency of the International Press Syndicate – 

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