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Fri 5 Mar 2010 12:00 AM

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The confidence to travel?

Taleb Rifai, of the United Nations World Tourism Organisation, on the benefits of green tourism.

The confidence to travel?
UNWTO boss Taleb Refai believes a major factor in the surge in travel in the Middle East in the second half of last year is the annual Hajj pilgrimage to Mecca.
The confidence to travel?
The confidence to travel?
The confidence to travel?
Rifai believes that the number of international travellers coming out of markets in South and East Asia will double. He adds that in the future, China will be one of the globe’s major tourism powerhouses.

‘Staycations' were the holiday trend in the last decade, but the end of 2009 saw a resurgence in global tourism. While the Middle East is leading the recovery, Taleb Rifai, secretary-general of the United Nations World Tourism Organisation, believes more still can to be done, especially in development of green tourism.

When it comes to the fate of the global travel industry, consumer confidence is of course all important. The Canadian stand-up comedian Brent Butt coined the phrase ‘staycation' - where holidaymakers decide to stay home and holiday within their immediate vicinity - and the term became popular in recent years as travellers lost confidence and decided to save cash and stay at home.

In 2010 the stay-at-home trend is predicted to decrease and Taleb Rifai, secretary-general of the United Nations World Tourism Organisation (UNWTO), believes this is down to a return of confidence to the market.

"The fact is that the economy did get a boost and a rise in confidence [has] affected our industry more than anything else. We have evidence that the confidence index improved in the last months of 2009," says Rifai.

Latest figures from the UNWTO's World Tourism Barometer show how the confidence boost has resulted in some recovery in the sector. International tourist arrivals for business, leisure and other purposes are estimated to have declined worldwide by four percent last year to 880m. Rifai says the dip was originally forecast to be a lot steeper and that "the recovery or rebound came faster and rather stronger than we thought."

During the first three quarters of 2009, international tourist arrivals shrank by ten percent, seven percent and two percent respectively. However, in the fourth quarter two percent growth was recorded, with the Asian and Middle Eastern markets leading the recovery.

As recently as October 2009 the UNWTO was predicting the year would end five percent down, but the positive fourth quarter has seen things begin to turn around and the forecast for 2010 is for a confident rise of up to four percent. One of the reasons the recovery in tourism has been so fast, believes Rifai, is that travel and tourism are no longer seen as discretionary expenditure.

"Tourism has been moving gradually, but steadily, from a discretionary expense into a rather essential part of people's life. The culture of travel is that it is not just something you do to spend your money but it is part of the household allotment and it has gradually become a fact of life. It is not an activity that is the exclusive force of income classes," he believes.

The Middle Eastern market declined by six percent last year, but Rifai points out that the recovery began in the second half of the year and that healthy regional travel was the major cause of this. Arab travellers generally tend to travel within their own region and only make up a small percentage of global visitors. One of the biggest markets is Saudi Arabia and one of the biggest travel motivators is religion.

A major factor in the surge in travel in the second half of last year was the annual Hajj pilgrimage to Mecca, currently the largest annual pilgrimage in the world. "Any small increment of two to three million, which is the impact that the Hajj season has, makes a big difference," says Rifai.

This year, there are expected to be 1.006bn international travellers, of which 36m come from the Middle East. 527m, or more than half, are expected to come from Europe and therefore Rifai believes the future of the global tourism market is dependent on what happens in Europe this year.

"When the European markets are hit and households' abilities to spend are too, then the whole world is affected. That is for sure a fact," he adds. By 2020, Rifai believes Europe's market share will begin to decline and the number of international travelers coming out of markets such as the Middle East, South Asia and East Asia will double.In the future, one of the major tourism powerhouses will be China, he believes. "We should keep in mind that it is slowly but solidly shifting in the direction of the emerging markets, like China, India and markets like Brazil. These are becoming very important generating markets. The Chinese are remarkable in how much they have moved in the last decade," Rifai adds.

At the start of this century less than ten million Chinese were leaving their home country to travel abroad, while this has now risen to over 50 million he says. The Chinese government is planning to increase this figure further this year and is aiming to increase domestic travel by ten percent to 3.3bn visits, to increase inbound travel by eight percent to 90m and to increase outbound travel by nine percent to 83m.

The Chinese government believes this will see tourism revenues grow by twelve percent and the sector will add another 4.5 percent to national GDP by 2015. It is no wonder that the UNWTO's recent Roadmap for Recovery report put China at the heart of the global recovery and that the UAE also decided to open a consulate last year in Shanghai.

"The efforts of the Chinese government to promote outbound tourism will be a great impetus for world tourism development especially when world tourism is overcast by the current economic downturn", Rifai said.

One of the initiatives the Chinese also announced was a bigger push to promote green tourism and has put in place a national campaign that explicitly requires that star-rated hotels reduce their water and electricity consumption by 20 percent over the next five years.

The green revolution in the tourism sector is one that the Middle East also needs to follow, believes Rifai, and he says the region needs to promote itself more as an environmentally friendly tourist location.

"I think many people are coming back and saying we need to reexamine how we did our investments and make sure that we move towards a green economy.

"2010 will be what we call a transformational year rather than a year of just recovery and transition. We want to use this year to establish the concept that sustainability is good business. This is from our basic belief that the economic crisis and the environmental crisis are two separate things and we need to find a solution that handles and deals with both, not just one of them," he adds.

He adds that one of the biggest challenges for the region will be "how to present the Middle East as a responsible tourism destination on an environmental, social and cultural level." He says work towards achieving this is "still lagging behind" but that some areas, such as Oman, have realised that this can be achieved and are working towards improving their green credentials. "The Middle East needs to reassert its particularity as a destination and not assume that what is a global fit for everybody should simply be applied in the Middle East," he says.

For example, Rifai says that the crisis saw that large all-inclusive investment results were harder hit during the recession and that "small, sensitive, responsible enterprises" were more successful and should be the trend in the future. Of course, a look down the list of countries that are part of the UNWTO shows one significant omission: the UAE. However, Rifai says this not due to a reluctance by the Emirati government to join.

"We have an excellent relationship with the UAE and we always do activities together. They are not officially a member but we have a very important meeting in Berlin [this] month negotiating the terms of their joining.

"It is not an issue of lack of political will or intention to become a member. They want to become a member and we very much welcome them as a member but we need to work out the practical and legal matters," he adds.

As we enter the new decade going green seems to be the only way forward forglobal tourism.

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