Former Two-Term UNWTO Secretary-General: An Interview with Taleb Rifai on Cultural Tourism

| |

Leader of U.N. Agency For Responsible & Sustainable Tourism: Cultural Tourism Breaks Down Walls

Last Updated on

Former Secretary-General of UNWTO, Taleb Rifai.

Cultural tourism breaks down walls in our often-divided world, according to Taleb Rifai. As someone who has experienced first-hand how the human-to-human connection can dissolve differing ideologies and create common ground, I couldn’t agree more.

Taleb is Secretary-General of UNWTO, the United Nations agency responsible for the promotion of responsible, sustainable and universally accessible tourism. UNWTO’s membership includes 157 countries, representing the private sector, educational institutions, tourism associations and local tourism authorities. UNWTO works in six main areas – competitiveness, sustainability, poverty reduction, capacity building, partnerships and mainstreaming.

Taleb began a four year term in 2010 and then was elected for a second four year term, which started in January 2014. He has an extensive background in international and national public service, the private sector and academia. A native of Jordan, he has held several cabinet positions within its government, including Minister of Planning and International Cooperation, Minister of Information and Minister of Tourism and Antiquity), Director of the Economic Mission to Washington DC and Director General of the Investment Promotion Corporation of Jordan.

Taleb’s career has also encompassed research, teaching and practicing architecture and urban design in Jordan and the USA. He has a Ph.D. in Urban Design and Regional Planning from the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia, an M.A. in Engineering and Architecture from the Illinois Institute of Technology (IIT) in Chicago, and a BS.c. in Architectural Engineering from the University of Cairo in Egypt.

In an unexpected but delightful reminder of just how small our increasingly-global world has become, I recently discovered that Taleb is a family friend of a college classmate of mine who is also from Jordan. That spot of serendipity added a fitting flourish to this Taleb Rifai interview about global human interaction.

The Growth of Tourism

Meg: International tourist arrivals were 25 million in 1950. In 2011 this number was up to 980 million and is expected to reach 1.8 billion by 2030. What do you see as the upside of this growth and what do you see as the downside that needs to be managed?

Taleb: Tourism has emerged as one of the leading sectors of our times with many socio-economic benefits that accrue to society. When one sees that tourism accounts for 10% of the GDP of the world and that one in eleven jobs depends on the sector, the upside cannot be questioned.

But more than its economic impact, tourism can contribute to building a better future. For instance, by creating new businesses and by generating income for local communities. In this line, tourism is a vital tool for poverty alleviation.

In parallel, tourism can enhance social development and stability. We live in an “Age of Travel”. Never before in our history have we been more exposed to such a melting pot of ethnicities, religions and lifestyles.

Tourism breaks down walls and builds bridges between visitors and hosts, nurturing respect and mutual understanding that is so much needed in this often-divided world. The more people travel and immerse in other societies, navigate other languages, behold incredible monuments and natural wonders, or experience firsthand the living traditions passed down by generations, the more they become part of a global dialogue that makes us citizens of the same world; citizens that understand and respect each other.

Of course, together with these positive impacts, UNWTO underlines the need for tourism to implement appropriate management policies and strategies, for proper education among tourists and host communities, for close coordination and cooperation between conservation and tourism, for adequate financing mechanisms and for innovative approaches, including a better use of the opportunities offered by technology in terms of managing our scarce resources.

Artisans Angkor workshop in Cambodia ensures integrity of local handicrafts. Photo: Artisans Angkor

Meg: One of the areas UNWTO works in is “improving tourism competitiveness.” Can you explain what this means in the context of cultural tourism?

Taleb: The competitiveness of a tourism destination is defined in a recent report by the UNWTO as the ability to use its natural, cultural, human, man-made and capital resources efficiently to develop and deliver quality, innovative, ethical and attractive tourism products and services that is part of a strategic vision for sustainable growth. The report calls for the world’s tourism sector to improve and diversify its market components and optimize its attractiveness and benefits–both for visitors and the local community.

These principles apply to any form of tourism, including cultural tourism. We should aim at developing competitive cultural tourism that creates employment, promotes heritage preservation by redirecting financial resources to conserve heritage sites and can preserve and revive traditional activities and customs. Yet, beyond these most immediate impacts, we may stress the role that cultural tourism can have in nurturing pride among communities, building bridges among people of different background and faiths and creating a feeling of global citizenship.

Meg: UNWTO’s Global Code of Ethic’s states “Tourism activity should be planned in such a way as to allow traditional cultural products, crafts and folklore to survive and flourish, rather than causing them to degenerate and become standardized.” In my own travels, I have observed this can be a difficult balance to achieve.

Scroll Painters Village initiative in West Bengal promotes the work of 3200 artists active in six different art forms. Photo: Biswarup Ganguly (Creative Commons)

Taleb: Tourism products such as crafts and folklore can degenerate and get standardized through over-exploitation for their economic value through demand. This is one of the major concerns of most national tourism administrations and organizations. UNWTO is fully aware of this and has addressed the issue in various conferences and seminars and publications.

For cultural heritage to be preserved, be it tangible or intangible, there should be economic and social benefits and engagement of the communities which ‘own’ that product. A good example is the Artisans Angkor workshop in Cambodia.

This initiative was conceived to provide training and opportunities to local artisans while presenting their work to tourists in shops around the Angkor World Heritage Site, where these souvenirs have started to replace fake originals. This is a manner of adding value to the crafts, engaging the community, adding value to the product and protect cultural heritage.

Making Sustainable Tourism Profitable

Meg: My most meaningful cultural tourism experiences have often been one-to-one interaction with local artisans. However, those in the tourism sector may say that level of personalization impacts revenues. Do you see sustainable cultural tourism as also representing a profitable business model for tourism operators?

Taleb: Yes, definitely. Also considering that travelers are more and more looking for authentic experiences. Providing for such experiences is an increasingly profitable business and can promote an equitable distribution of tourism revenues to local communities

The Scroll Painters Village initiative in West Bengal, India, is a good example. In 2004, the Kolkata-based social enterprise initiated an experimental “Making Art for Livelihood” project, targeting 3200 artists active in six different art forms in six of the most economically disadvantaged districts of West Bengal. These art forms were Patachitra, which is painting with natural colors and storytelling through singing; Baul Fakiri – sufi music; Jhumur – tribal music and dance; Chau – tribal mask dance blended with martial arts; and Gambhira and Domni – folk theater.

The Project aimed at enhancing livelihoods of traditional artists while providing a positive new identity to their localities as creative hubs. From its inception, it adopted a holistic methodology, comprising a baseline study on knowledge, aptitude and practice of the practitioners, training artists to improve the quality of their output and their business skills, creating Self Help Groups (SHGs) with their own bank accounts, helping to provide artists and their families with health insurance, and creating links to new markets and audiences. As result, living conditions in the villages improved drastically, with average incomes rising from US$9 per month in 2004 to US$126 in 2010, and with 40% of the artists earning approximately US$270.

Meg: How do you think cultural tourism can play a role in promoting greater world harmony and reducing intolerance?

Taleb: Cultural tourism represents an experience in itself. Either we talk about seeing an iconic monument like the Eiffel Tower, the Taj Mahal or the Great Wall of China, experiencing a creative piece of music, having a great local meal or enjoying a theatre play, we always talk about emotions and humanity’s greatest values.

But the greatest gift of cultural tourism is its ability to put the traveler in touch with people. It is through this physical and emotional contact that intolerance can be reduced as tourism leads to greater understanding, empathy and appreciation of mankind.

The complex relationship between the development of tourism and the dialogue between different cultures finds its basis in the fact that tourism shares with religions and civilizations values such as tolerance and respect of diversity, as well as rediscovery of oneself and of the others.

Tourism is important as a cornerstone of pluralism and as an effective way of bridging the divides. UNWTO has recently supported the publication of the “International Handbook on Tourism and Peace” which underlines this important relationship.

The Great Wall of China. Photo: DesktopBackground

Cultural Tourism and Regeneration

Meg: How do you think cultural tourism can play a role in urban regeneration and can you provide several examples of successes?

Taleb: Cultural tourism can be a force to rejuvenate cities and infrastructure, boost trade and commerce, and enhance economic activities in cities. For that reason, we have been working in this field since the approval of the Istanbul Declaration at the 1st City Tourism Summit organized by UNWTO in 2012. The Declaration defines key areas of work for city tourism including cultural tourism. The issue has been debated with all stakeholders in the three City Tourism Summits that have followed since then in Moscow, Barcelona and Marrakesh and will be at the core of the forthcoming event to be held in Luxor, Egypt in November this year.

With more than half of the world’s population living in cities, city tourism has become a critical factor in the preservation of cultural identity, economic revitalization and as a mechanism for enriching city life. It is thus no surprise to see an increasing number of local authorities identifying cultural tourism as a major avenue of economic and social development or regeneration of their cities.

Visitors are shaping cities and how historic cities have transformed themselves through a mix of creative cultural programs, protection of historic buildings and transformation of redundant or degraded urban areas. In the last 50 years the older urban or industrial areas of many historic towns and cities have been regenerated to provide new cultural, recreational, commercial and residential opportunities for local people and visitors.

The contemporary culture and cultural heritage of historic urban ensembles form major attractions for the national and international tourism sectors. Tourism in cities and other historic urban centers generates different issues and opportunities compared with tourism to specific heritage sites in rural areas or isolated locations. Towns and cities have a local population base that supports much of the infrastructure required by the tourism sector, providing a secure base for the provision of such services and a direct mechanism for befitting the local economy.

Within this context, we should always stress that such developments need to be done in full respect and engagement with local communities.

Meg: Is the U.S. a member of UNWTO?

Taleb: Although the US is not a Member of UNWTO we are very pleased to have a close relationship with the US administration in the area of tourism. As an example, the US has taken part in the First World Conference on Tourism for Development organized on 19 May 2016 by UNWTO and the Government of the People’s Republic of China in Beijing. We naturally, hope that in the future the US can rejoin UNWTO and show its leadership in our organization. From our side, we must say we are very pleased to see the measures that have been taken nationally to support tourism development namely the National Travel and Tourism Strategy.

Meg: Can you share some views about your own cultural heritage?

Taleb: I am from Jordan and Arab culture is a colorful mosaic of ancient monuments, art, architecture, gastronomy, literature and music that each tells the story of the diverse group of nations from the Middle East to North Africa. In my case, I was privileged to work on Petra which is one of the iconic cultural tourism sites in the world.

The cultural treasures in the Arab world are invaluable tourism assets, particularly since a growing number of tourists are seeking authenticity to enrich their travel experience. Take the example of Bahrain. The culture of the Bahrain archipelago is unique in that it embraces the modern and ancient world – it is a vibrant modern city by the sea, rising together with magnificent mosques and archaeological sites. Yet, few people know that Bahrain is home to one of the world´s oldest civilizations, the Dilmun, and recent archaeological discoveries continue to unlock the secrets of Bahrain´s ancient past.

Meg: You spent two decades as a professor of Architecture at the University of Jordan in Amman. Did that experience have an impact on your view of cultural tourism in any way?

Taleb: Yes, architecture is a major part of cultural tourism and my experience has naturally contributed to look into cultural tourism with the eyes of an architect. Yet, my experience as Secretary-General of the World Tourism Organization has transformed the way I see cultural tourism even more as I have seen the power of the encounters between people and the power that tourism can bring to the communities all around the world.

I would like to recall the words of the travel writer, Pico Iyer, who once wrote that “tourism can resuscitate and revive culture – it has created new “traditional” dances in Bali and caused craftsmen in India to pay new attention to their works.” Most importantly, alongside the economic dimension, cultural tourism nurtures a sense of pride among communities, advances public education and promotes heritage preservation by providing financial resources for the conservation of valuable heritage sites. Culture is the author of the story and tourism is the publisher of that story.

Meg: You then had a series of cabinet positions, including the Ministry of Tourism and Antiquity, where you established Jordan’s first Archaeological Park in the ancient city of Petra in collaboration with UNESCO and the World Bank. Can you reflect on this period in your career?

Taleb: I would like to share with you an experience in Petra which is, of course, not only mine but of all Jordanians. Petra is more than simply an archaeological site. It shows the two-thousand-year-old culture of the ancient Jordanian tribes and the trade routes that linked East and West.

Petra in Jordan. Photo: Frode Bjorshol (Flickr)

The giant carved red mountains and vast mausoleums provide an awe-inspiring experience. But in order to arrest the crumbling of the stone, ancient techniques had to be reintroduced. Petra required the reconstruction of the entire ecosystem that existed when the city was built, comprising a system of canals, terraced overhangs and cultivated gardens in an area close to Petra, the Wadi Al Mataha.

The most immediate threat to be addressed, however, was presented by the increasing flow of tourists, with all the potential consequences to the already fragile infrastructure and the local traditions. The Petra Regional Planning Council, a cross-sectorial entity chaired by the Minister of Tourism and Antiquities and comprising governmental and nongovernmental representatives, was set up in 1995 by the Jordanian authorities, funded by 25 per cent of the revenues from the Petra entrance fee. In 1997, a project executed by the Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities and supported by the World Bank was taken forward. Under the project, the need for physical upgrading and management capacities at the archeological sites was addressed and roads and urban infrastructures in their vicinity were improved. In addition, services were provided to communities living next to the tourist attractions. This was key to the development of cultural tourism in Jordan and the future of this unique site.

Meg: You have dedicated the past decade of your career to world tourism. Can you share what have been your biggest joy and biggest frustration?

Taleb: My biggest joy is always to see how tourism brings smiles to the faces of the people and provides them with new opportunities for a better life. How tourism transform their lives and that of their communities.

Our biggest challenge is that we should never forget that with tourism’s growth comes increased responsibility. Responsibility to protect our heritage and our planet, responsibility to promote our common values and respect each other.

Meg: Can you describe an experience of cultural tourism that you would consider as the most powerful one you have had to date?

Taleb: It is very difficult as I have had the privilege of experiencing so many powerful cultural expressions around the world.

Yet, I think the Silk Road is a good example as it brings together such a range of different countries and is an initiative that UNWTO has been leading for many years now.

The Silk Road. Photo: fdecomite (Flickr)

Acclaimed as the ‘greatest route in the history of mankind’, the ancient Silk Road formed the first bridge between the East and the West and was an important vehicle for trade between the ancient empires of China, Central and Western Asia, the Indian sub-continent and Rome. As routes of integration, exchange and dialogue, the Silk Road contributed greatly to the common prosperity and development of humankind for almost two millennia.

With its richly diverse cultural heritage and its wealth of natural tourism attractions spanning across thousands of kilometers of ancient routes, the Silk Road today offers visitors the opportunity to experience a unique network of destinations linked by a shared history. By venturing along the ancient Silk Road, tourists can walk in the footsteps of famed explorers such as Marco Polo and Ibn Batuta. As we develop this “new” Silk Road we are contributing to a bigger integration of the countries along the route, creating jobs and opportunities to promote and present this amazing cultural experience.

Meg: The percentage of Americans who have a valid passport is about 46%, according to statistics issued by the State Department in 2014. That means more than half of my fellow countrymen have never encountered first-hand the local customs of another country. What would you say to anyone who hasn’t experienced another culture’s heritage?

Taleb: Tourism is undoubtedly one of the major economic activities of our time but tourism is more than just numbers; the true story behind the numbers is the movement and exchange of people.

And it is this exchange – the direct and unmediated encounters between peoples from different backgrounds and ways of life – that makes tourism different to most other economic activities.

Tourism is about the millions of conversations and interactions that take place on a daily basis as visitors, and local communities, encounter new and different cultures.

It’s about the new language we read on the signs as we arrive into our destinations, the unfamiliar music on the taxi’s radio on the way to our hotel, the food we eat as we sit down to dinner and, most importantly, the stories we hear from the people we meet.

It’s about exchanging ideas, objects and beliefs and learning about different points of view. It’s human interaction at its best.

This interaction is at the heart of the tourism – linking cultures.

Maintaining Cultural Identity Through Cultural Preservation at Heart Of UNESCO’s Intangible Cultural Heritage Safeguarding


Leave a Comment

Do NOT follow this link or you will be banned from the site!