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In conversation with: Taleb Rifai

Placid water surface bordered by exotic trees

Have you ever really stopped to think about the positive power of tourism? Have you ever thought about the way in which your travel choices could directly impact policy makers, change laws, or improve the livelihoods of hundreds of thousands of people?

Every day, hundreds of thousands of us jump on planes, explore new lands and greet new faces without any real idea of the power of the tourism industry, and how this can be used as a catalyst to evoke positive, real change within the sustainability sector.

Isn’t it high time we woke up to this?

To celebrate Earth Month, and to commemorate the fact that 2017 is the UN’s International Year of Sustainable Tourism for Development, we (together with our friends at TreadRight) sat down with Taleb Rifai, Secretary-General of the World Tourism Organization (UNWTO), to discuss exactly what the International Year is all about, and what we can do as travellers to support its objectives:

Please can you briefly introduce yourself and your role at the UN…

I am Taleb Rifai, Secretary-General of the World Tourism Organization (UNWTO), a United Nations Specialized Agency mandated to promote sustainable, responsible and accessible tourism for all.

I am a person who has always believed in the transformative power of tourism. Leading the UN Agency for Tourism, I try to engage all – governments, private sector, media and civil society – to contribute to a better world. This has been my ‘leitmotive’ at UNWTO, and other ministerial responsibilities in the last decades: to lead common action and to promote exchanges between actors that can foster change.

A man in a blue shirt named Taleb Rifai.

What exactly is the International Year of Sustainable Tourism for Development looking to achieve? What are the goals of the year, and how do you plan to achieve them?

The International Year of Sustainable Tourism for Development was designated by the United Nations 70th General Assembly in 2015, converting this year in a unique opportunity to raise awareness of the contribution of sustainable tourism to development among public and private sector decision-makers and the public. An essential component of the campaign is to mobilize all stakeholders to work together in making tourism a catalyst for positive change.

The International Year aims to support a change in policies, business practices and consumer behavior towards a more sustainable tourism sector than can contribute to the SDGs (sustainable development goals).

How can the individual traveller make a difference on their own travels?

Small gestures have great repercussions, we all know that. In that regard, small actions like supporting local culture and products and respecting the hosting communities will definitely transform the way we travel today.

Today, 1.2 billion people travel internationally in one single year, 6 billion more are estimated to travel within their countries. Imagine the power of their single actions multiplied by billions.

If we successfully stick to Agenda 2030, how different will the world look, and how differently will we be travelling?

Through the Agenda 2030 and the 17 universal Goals we’ve identified, the world will definitely be a fairer and more equal place, and a more sensitized global community on sustainable practices will appear. Therefore, travelling will continue to be one of the best catalysts to interconnect us all, and to foster common action that will lead to a better planet.

Man standing and paddling a large wooden canoe at sunset

Do you think the growth of tourism is a positive way of combating wider issues within the world, such as terrorism?

Tourism has proven to be a wonderful catalyst not only to enhance our knowledge about the world, but also shorten distances among different traditions, cultural backgrounds and beliefs. People become more open minded and more sensible to current global issues and the fact that we live in “One World” thanks to the power of travel.

How best do we mobilise young people to aid the UN in achieving their Sustainable Development Goals?

Young people are the best ambassadors for the principles of the 17 SDGs. Their engagement will be critical to fulfil the Goals. Youth has been present in the work of the UN since the signature of the Charter of the United Nations in 1945.

In the framework of the SDGs, the topics addressed are so varied that the opportunities for youth to participate in the process are immense. At the same time, we need to continue engaging youth in the work of the UN and using different strategies, such as creating spaces to let young people express themselves and be heard, bridging the gaps between governments and youngsters and promoting intergenerational exchanges.

From the tourism field, we are proud to work with great young advocates who globally underline the role of sustainable practices to the sector and we will continue working to engage them in the coming years, as they constitute the future of the sector.

The logo for the 2017 international year for development, featuring Taleb Rifai.

At the end of April, The Travel Project will be working with Seth Maxwell, CEO of The Thirst Project, sending him on a mission to Costa Rica, to explore how this tiny country is a shining example of sustainable tourism done right. Check out Seth’s Instagram to follow his journey, and don’t forget to check back to The Travel Project soon to learn more about his experience…

*Many thanks to TreadRight for facilitating this interview. The Travel Corporation is a Diamond Sponsor of the International Year of Sustainable Tourism for Development 2017.