Exclusive Interview with the Secretary-General of the UNWTO

Most of you reading this post already know that we started Backpacking with the Bonds to help travelers think about how their travel affects the places they visit-both positively and negatively. All of our posts and guides are written to help travelers to think about and design their trips to maximize their impact on the local economies. Recently, we wrote a blog piece about the United Nations World Tourism Organization’s (UNWTO) International Year of Sustainable Tourism, to showcase the international initiative to raise awareness of the contribution of sustainable tourism to development.  To discuss this topic further, we were able to get an exclusive interview with the Secretary-General of the UNWTO, Taleb Rifai.  Thank you, Mr. Rifai and the staff at the UNWTO for taking the time to work with Backpacking with the Bonds.

Taleb Rifai, Secretary-General of the UNWTO

Taleb Rifai, Secretary-General of the UNWTO

Could you tell us a bit about yourself and your role at the UNWTO?

I am Taleb Rifai, Secretary-General of the World Tourism Organization (UNWTO). I served my first term as Secretary-General between 2010 and 2013, and was elected for a second four-year term, starting in January 2014, by the 20th Session of UNWTO General Assembly and ending in December this year (2017).

Prior to my appointment, I served in several ministerial portfolios in the Government of Jordan as Minister of Tourism and Antiquities; Minister of Information; and, Minister of Planning and International Cooperation.

From 1997 to 2000, I was Chief Executive Officer (CEO) of the Jordan Cement Company, one of the largest public shareholding companies in Jordan; and directed the first large-scale privatization and restructuring scheme in Jordan.


What is the mission of the UNWTO?

UNWTO is the leading international organization in the field of tourism, which promotes tourism as a driver of economic growth, inclusive development and environmental sustainability and offers leadership and support to the sector in advancing knowledge and tourism policies worldwide. It serves as a global forum for tourism policy issues and a practical source of tourism knowledge.

UNWTO encourages the implementation of the Global Code of Ethics for Tourism to maximize the contribution of tourism to socio-economic development, while minimizing its possible negative impacts, and is committed to promoting tourism as an instrument in achieving the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), geared towards eliminating poverty and fostering sustainable development and peace worldwide.



We recently wrote a blog post about the International Year of Sustainable Tourism for Development. Can you tell us more about why the U.N. through the UNWTO has dedicated an entire year to the initiative?

The Declaration of the International Year of Sustainable Tourism for Development comes in a very relevant moment, when tourism has been highlighted as a leading force in advancing sustainable development worldwide in the Sustainable Development Goals and as a key pillar of the Agenda 2030.

The Year is only the “excuse” to continue working in areas that are intimately related to this sector, such as Gender Equality, Peace and Justice, Poverty Reduction and Environmental Protection and to increase the volume of joint actions and cooperation around those.

In 2016, more than 1.2 billion international tourists (1.235 million) crossed borders in the seventh year of straight growth for the sector. Tourism is today responsible for 7% of global trade, 10% of GDP and one in every ten jobs in the world. It has become one of the best positioned sectors to provide sustainable livelihoods and foster peace, understanding and environmental protection.

For all these reasons, the United Nations (UN) General Assembly at its 70th Session proclaimed 2017 as the International Year of Sustainable Tourism for Development recognizing the potential that the sector has to contribute to economic growth, social inclusion, cultural and natural preservation and better understanding between diverse cultures.

Read: The International Year of Sustainable Tourism for Development


What is sustainable tourism and why should travelers care about it?

Expressed simply, sustainable tourism can be defined as: "Tourism that takes full account of its current and future economic, social and environmental impacts, addressing the needs of visitors, the industry, the environment and host communities"

Thus, sustainable tourism should:

1) Make optimal use of environmental resources that constitute a key element in tourism development, maintaining essential ecological processes and helping to conserve natural heritage and biodiversity.

2) Respect the socio-cultural authenticity of host communities, conserve their built and living cultural heritage and traditional values, and contribute to inter-cultural understanding and tolerance.

3) Ensure viable, long-term economic operations, providing socio-economic benefits to all stakeholders that are fairly distributed, including stable employment and income-earning opportunities and social services to host communities, and contributing to poverty alleviation.

Sustainable tourism development requires the informed participation of all relevant stakeholders, as well as strong political leadership to ensure wide participation and consensus building. Achieving sustainable tourism is a continuous process and it requires constant monitoring of impacts, introducing the necessary preventive and/or corrective measures whenever necessary.



How do you personally support sustainable tourism when you travel?

Whenever I travel, I try to meet locals, interact with them and learn from them about their culture and traditions. I also try to reduce my water and energy consumption and offset the flights I take, whenever possible. In general I always aim to leave a minimum foot print and always a good impression behind.



Here at Backpacking with the Bonds we promote the importance of supporting local businesses involved in the tourism industry.  How does the UNWTO support local entrepreneurs and businesses operating within the tourism industry?

Tourism is not just a major part of the global economy; it is also a means of furthering “inclusive” growth which increases opportunities for all. The sector is a major source of employment and we should specially stress the opportunities it offers for economic activity at the local level, as well as for women and youth – the sector employs higher proportions of women and young people than are represented in the overall global workforce.

Community-based tourism for example can create much-needed opportunities, especially for rural or indigenous communities. Yet, overall, UNWTO promote the inclusion of local businesses into the tourism value chain in many ways, including workshops on tourism planning, product development and marketing capacity building trainings in hospitality. We also ensure that such component is a pillar of the national tourism strategies that we develop for countries around the world.



How can travelers contribute to sustainable tourism and its development goals?

Each simple action can have great repercussions. For instance, protecting the heritage that we visit, buying local products, not supporting actions that lead to human rights infringement are attitudes that should be assumed by travelers. Each action multiplied by millions makes an immense difference.

In fact UNWTO launched a campaign aimed at raising awareness of the value and contribution that sustainable tourism can make towards development. The ‘Travel.Enjoy.Respectcampaign wants to engage tourists in making the sector a catalyst for positive change.

The campaign, which is running in various languages and outlets around the world, includes a manual of ‘Tips for a Responsible Traveller’, developed by the World Committee on Tourism Ethics in line with the UNWTO Global Code of Ethics for Tourism. The manual provides travellers with a set of recommendations to help them make responsible choices when travelling and have a positive impact on the destinations they visit.