Interview: Safety and security ‘the major challenge’ for tourism

Interview: Safety and security ‘the major challenge’ for tourism

Alain St Ange, former Seychelles minister of tourism, is one of seven candidates to replace Taleb Rifai as head of the UN World Tourism Organisation (UNWTO). He spoke to Ian Taylor

Improving safety and security in travel and tourism is now “the major challenge we face”, according to Alain St Ange, the ex-minister of tourism for the Seychelles who hopes to succeed Taleb Rifai as secretary general of the UN World Tourism Organisation (UNWTO).

He is one of seven candidates who have been campaigning among UNWTO members since Rifai announced his intention to stand down at the end of this year.

St Ange is full of praise for Rifai who has led the UNWTO since 2010, but says: “The May election is very important for the UNWTO. The new secretary general has to be a leader of the world of tourism. It’s important to reassess the mandate and to refocus. The challenges of eight years ago are no more the problems of today.”

Safety and security, he says, present “a new category of crisis. The effects drag on.

“Take France – it’s both a destination and a source market. Paris is still empty [after the terror attacks of November 2015]. People and businesses suffer. The countries that depend on French tourism also suffer.

“The problems will not solve themselves. The UNWTO needs to take a leadership role. We need to sit with interior ministers, ministers of tourism and the press.”

He says: “Taleb expresses words of comfort. He is the human face of travel and tourism. But the UNWTO needs to be on the ground.”

So he proposes opening regional offices to give the organisation a field presence, with an office in Africa to be established “immediately”.

St Ange says: “I propose the UNWTO has field officers. I discussed this with many countries and they are eager to have it.”

He also proposes Rifai remain on at the UNWTO in a secretary general emeritus position.

Rifai has been sharply critical of government travel advisories, and St Ange agrees, saying: “Every time there is a problem there is a travel advisory. But who goes on the ground to remove it? Governments are fast to make advisories, but not fast to take them off.”

Elections and a change of government in the Seychelles last year led the UK Foreign Office to update its advice to the islands. St Ange says: “The British Consulate view was ‘We need to tell people there will be rallies.’ “The UK is very fast to put on advisories.  It tries to produce localised advice, but we don’t sit together and have dialogue. Things are too politicised.”

He says he will seek to bring countries outside the UNWTO, such as the UK, US, Australia and Singapore, back into the organisation, arguing: “The UNWTO needs to bring everything together. We are all in the tourism industry.

“Taleb has performed miracles in bringing the Pacific Asia Travel Association (Pata), the World Travel & Tourism Council (WTTC) and UNWTO to sit together. But we need to complete this. We need to get ministers to sit with the UNWTO.”

If elected, St Ange says he would see his term of office as an “extension of Taleb’s”, arguing: “We have to take the next step.”

Looking at the UNWTO itself, he says: “Taleb modernised the organisation, [but] we need to re-look at it. The UNWTO must be representative of member states and look at what member states are saying, and if we want non-member states [like the UK] to re-join they must see the organisation progressing. It’s about confidence that the UNWTO heeds them. Field offices would help – and we have to demonstrate ways to work with the private sector.”

Another priority is sustainable tourism. In his election statement St Ange argues: “It is time to put sustainability and climate on an equal par to promotion.”

He also suggests “Pushing for communities [in destinations] to claim back their tourism industry will help to alleviate poverty.”

St Ange says: “We must protect the environment. The Seychelles has done well in this area – 52% of the islands are devoted to national parks.

“Sustainability – what used to be called conservation – is ingrained in the Seychelles.  We were one of the first countries to have our own sustainable tourism label for hotels.

“But it’s not just whether you change a light bulb or take care of the environment around you, it’s also about labour. If you go to a hotel and find people sleeping in the road, is that sustainable?”

He also argues travel “can’t be a free for all”. Referring to businesses such as Airbnb, he says: “A country must be able to say [to a visitor] ‘We’ve seen where you are staying and it’s safe and clean’. Or is it just about growth in numbers and a country’s infrastructure must be paid for by a few [locals]?”

St Ange summarises his priorities as: “Security, sitting together, having one voice, being more representative.” He adds: “We can have committees and commissions, but we need practical initiatives.

“We have work to do. Our visibility is lower than we think. I was interviewed by Sky News [anchor] Adam Boulton who said: ‘I didn’t know the UNWTO existed. What do you do?’

“The UNWTO is our little club and we’ve taken it for granted, but it impacts on the travel and aviation world.

“Economies depend on tourism. It puts money in the pockets of normal people, of small businesses. The UNWTO has to deliver for an industry that is a pillar of the economy for so many.”

Election for UNWTO secretary general

The 34 members of the UNWTO executive council will recommend one of seven candidates as next secretary general following a meeting on May 10-12 in Madrid. The recommended candidate should be confirmed as secretary general by an assembly of the 155 UNWTO member states in September. Taleb Rifai will step down at the end of the year.

The seven candidates are:

Vahan Martirosyan, Armenia:

Current minister of transport, communications and IT (since September 2016), former chairman of several Armenian companies (most recently of a telecom company). Has almost three decades of private sector experience.

Márcio Favilla De Paula, Brazil:

UNWTO executive director for operational programmes and institutional relations, and a former vice-minister of Brazil. He emphasises competitiveness and sustainability as “clear strategic objectives”, arguing the UNWTO “must support tourism’s growth with quality . . . must provide policy guidance, standards and recommendations”.

Jaime Alberto Cabal Sanclemente, Colombia:

Former ambassador and permanent representative to the UN, a president of the Columbian hotel and tourism association (2002-11) and a minister (1999-2000). Sanclemente proposes a new structure and strategy for the UNWTO, with the recruitment of more states and incorporation of private and academic stakeholders, increasing the membership and strengthening the finances.

Zurab Pololikashvili, Georgia:

Current ambassador to Spain, previously minister for economic development and one-time deputy minister of foreign affairs. Pololikashvili advocates the UNWTO become “a reference point for destination marketing and management organisations, [providing] guidelines on management and marketing”.

Young-shim Dho, Republic of Korea:

Chair of the UNWTO’s ST-EP (Sustainable Tourism for Eliminating Poverty) Foundation, a former Korean ambassador and MP. Her election would mark “the first time our organisation would elect a woman and candidate from Asia to its top position”. Among detailed proposals, Young-shim Dho advocates an investigation into “private services on digital platforms, inaccurately identified as collaborative/sharing”. She also proposes “a new flagship building in Madrid” for the UNWTO.

Walter Mzembi, Zimbabwe:

Minister of tourism and hospitality since 2009 and MP since 2004, Mzembi previously worked as a marketing director, manager and engineer in sectors including water and mining. His agenda includes reform of the organisation, repositioning and “brand development”.

Alain St Ange, Seychelles:

St Ange stood down as a minister of tourism for the Seychelles to contest the election, having previously headed the Seychelles Tourism Board and worked in the hotel industry for two decades.


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