UNWTO has many items of technical assistance with Nigeria—Taleb Rifai

Posted: March 20, 2013 in travel & tourism
taleb rifai, the secretary general of unwto

taleb rifai, the secretary general of unwto

(Blurb): Secretary General of the United Nation’s tourism monitoring and development agency, the United Nations World Tourism Organization (UNWTO), Dr. Talib Rifai, was recently in the country to attend the organization’s conference for Tourism Ministers of African Members States which held in Calabar, the Cross River State.

In this interview with VICTOR NZE, at the Federal Palace Hotel, Victoria Island, Lagos, on the eve of the conference, Rifai, spoke on the role of tourism in developing the continent, President Goodluck Jonathan’s position on tourism in Nigeria and the need   political leaders to embrace tourism, among others.  Excerpts:

How does the UNWTO gather statistics and support the same figures as regards the role of tourism in Nigeria’s economy?

Firstly, statistics is a very important element in tourism.  Without adequate information, you cannot put your plan in place or in action. It is a pre-requisite that is very essential and it is a support that we give to all countries Nigeria inclusive. Notwithstanding, however, an issue that needs to be addressed is how importantly does Nigeria see to tourism. This is very important before we talk about anything else; to establish a political world that sees tourism as part of the solution and Nigeria’s future. There are great and big countries like Nigeria which  have so many options to generate resources, income, develop the country and to enrich the lives of the people with their natural resources, trade, energy and all of that.

When you believe that tourism is as important as all of them, because it is a resource that keeps growing and needs someone to take care of it, what you need to do first and foremost,  is to establish a clear priority in the national agenda on behalf of the highest political leadership of the country.

Tourism is important and therefore puts many policies in the service of productivity because Nigeria has so much; the culture, varieties in landscape that’s precisely what we were here to do when we came here four years ago to meet and we come again now.

It is rare that we come to the same country twice in ten years to meet but it sends a very important message on the importance of Nigeria within the African context and the international scene, again. Our coming to Nigeria is politically, technically and professionally important and that is why we would like to have the support of the Minister here (Chief Edem Duke) and he has shown great concern with the short time spent here with seriousness and dedication, and I am looking forward to meeting leaders of all the sectors of Nigeria-political leaders, business, journalists to be able to see how we cope with tourism and make a difference in people’s lives. That’s why we are here.

Recently, Canada protested the choice of Zambia and Zimbabwe as venue for the General Assembly, and the endorsement of President Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe, what effort did the UNWTO make to bring Canada back?

The decision to hold the general assembly in Victoria Falls is the General Assembly’s decision. It is not the minster’s decisions. There are 155 countries in the Assembly with a 160 members. As Secretary General, my duty is to implement and respect the decision of my general assembly, that’s one. Secondly, that was an African beat; the whole of Africa supported that, and any position in the general Assembly assumes in that context and we must not lose track of that. Thirdly, there was no special distinction to any special leader in this world. I have said this and often to all a 160 heads of state all over the world asking them to support tourism in an open letter.

To date, 32 leaders have received these open letters from me. As a UN organization, I have an obligation to 33 countries; we serve people, they don’t serve us. Our duty is to the people and to us. Everybody is equal.  I walked to Victoria Falls, I signed the agreement in the presence of President Michael Sata and President Robert Mugabe, I did my job, I will continue to do my job and people can say whatever they want to say.

Canada is not a member of the UNWTO since a year ago. We have withdrawn because of the misunderstanding and I think the question should be addressed to Canada. If they are not members of UNWTO how can they grow based on the reason that you have analyzed. In explaining this,  I will leave it to the UN and to the country. Any country that asks us this, I would answer them exactly the way I have answered you. I have only one answer and one story to tell anyone who cares to listen; we don’t have double languages here. The Canadians have decided to come up with this statement which I don’t understand. Whatever reasons they have is for them to answer.

taleb rifai (l) with chief edem duke, nigeria's minister of tourism and culture

taleb rifai (l) with chief edem duke, nigeria’s minister of tourism and culture

What effort is UNWTO making to help African journalists attend international functions that aid tourism reportage in Nigeria?

You are absolutely correct,. Let us distinguish between two things; one is for media journalists to attend our fora. Actually, I feel sad when there are no representatives of African journalists in many of these for a; whether it is media or advertising compared to other parts of the world. We try our best, I instruct my regional director in Calabar that every time please contact our members; see what problems we have and when we hear about the problems, we deal with them immediately. We have an obligation by the governments that we hold these meetings with to facilitate us immediately. It is by international law they cannot do order wise. If similar situations arise, please contact us.

I have just received a mail half an hour ago from Brazil about the complications some delegates were experiencing in moving. It happens in every country, it’s not just an African issue. The third point is what the minister said; we need to give more support to media people. I am absolutely ready in 2015 to hold a few media and tourism meetings in Africa and would be more than supportive to address issues especially in Nigeria. We need a place that is accessible to people so that the message can be advertised to the rest of Africa.

In what ways is the UNWTO assisting sub-Saharan countries of Africa to develop their tourism potentials and what is essentially the UNWTO’s agenda for Africa?

Africa today,  is receiving less than 5 percent of world tourists, less than 50 million international travelers come to Africa and if you add up all international tourists that comes to each and every country within the continent, we are still at less than 50 million out of 100 million, now that by itself is the statistics because Africa deserves much better than that. So our agenda for Africa is to make sure that it grows at every juncture of its development to reach international standard.The rate of growth globally is 3.5 to 4.7. We need to ensure that Africa maintains a stronger bond so that time would be on the side of Africa and it is actually working. In the last five years , the only continent and region in the world that did not experience a setback is West Africa even in the 2009 with the global economic issues Africa did not have a setback, . Its rate of growth is very impressive.

The first objective or agenda for Africa is solid and bigger than world average rate of tourism. Secondly, create policies towards tourism; you don’t grow numbers just by having people come here enjoy and leave without having the people of the country benefit from the environment, and the socio-cultural enrichment in tourism. We want to make sure that Africa does not commit the same mistakes we have made in other places; we need to make sure that the money spent in Africa remains with the people of Africa and doesn’t go out to international businesses.

We need to make sure that the policies are environmentally-friendly and responsible, we need to make sure that tourism enriches the culture of Africa and doesn’t destroy it. If we can maintain these two issues, growth and sustainability as to create the agenda of Africa , we will be doing that and we have some success stories, North Africa is doing well, East Africa is doing relatively fine,  Southern Africa is beginning to pick up and we are concentrating on West Africa. There are also challenges particularly political challenges, again, peace, stability and harmony are very important in building stability of tourism.

When do you intend to put these into action?

We are already in action. We have identified national parks as   basic elements to sustainability in acquiring skills to people on how to manage your parks and so we are doing the big event in Tanzania, in West Africa here, we were engaged in the last three years in a very important project what we call first national parks in trying to harmonize all policies and guidelines in order to manage these parks. We are doing a lot, in training, statistics and destination management and many issues that are related to good tourism management.

How do women and children fit into tourism at this time?

This is connected to sustainability which is the welfare of the people; sustainability in a nutshell is turning tourism which is a human activity into it a gainful activity. If mismanaged, it can destroy the environment, the social values, turn women and children into element of distraction, we have seen various places around the world not just Africa where sexual abuse and child labour exist, we want to make sure that our industry is clean that’s why we are focusing on women and children in tourism, this is a globally issue that’s why we chose to bring it to Africa because we see the rise of tourism in Africa, we want to make sure that it doesn’t turn out to be that women and children who are most vulnerable in our society become victims in the industry.There is much to do otherwise, wait for the people. We have worked with the United Nations where women spoke, in the last two years and you would be surprised that over 65 percent of the work force in the industry is occupied by women, majority of them are in leadership positions and so we need to adjust this balance properly. We are happy to say that proper research has been done on the success of women in tourism in 33 years; we are very interested in the connection between women and tourism. Tourism is the best place for young people to get jobs and then they can move to other places.

What does it take to get companies and organizations to accept tourism?

They major challenge is for political leaders to really believe that tourism is important. Tourism ministers not just in Africa but all over the world are very lonely ministers in the sense that their success is contained in what other ministers do; the foreign minister decides on the entry procedures, the transport minister decides on the infrastructures for airports and road, the environment minster decides on the policies for the environment, and then all of that affects tourism one way or the other and so without the head of the state the highest political element believing that tourism is important and making all key players of the system play for the support of the Ministry of Tourism, it becomes a difficult and tough call for the tourism minister.So our major challenge is to ensure that the political arena fully accepts tourism. An example is the President of Mexico, one month after he assumed office as President three years ago; he dismantled the Ministry of Tourism. The private sector in the country asked us to write him a letter to see if he could change his mind as this is a sign of disbelief. So we mobilized, we wrote him a letter and I went to see him personally. Today, he has become the strongest supporter of tourism, as president of the G-20 he was privileged to address all G-20 world leaders in the United Kingdom, Canada, Australia, France, where he called on everybody to include in their programme the importance of travel and tourism and in the world’s economy, and I’m hoping that we can have every African leader (head of state and government) embrace this agenda because it is the future of Africa.

Is there anything that can convince these political leaders to accept tourism?

A typical experience I had with a certain head of state; we started out very nicely, friendly but not knowing really what to expect after five to six minutes I started to become open and engaged and then I told him, one out of twelve jobs around the world is that outside the UNWTO travel and tourism industry, 9 percent of world GDP totals 5 percent direct contribution towards tourism, every job you create in tourism creates 1.7 jobs in other sectors, so you build a hotel and employ 100 people, but you have created jobs for 270 people, sometimes politicians would say tourism is important but tourists don’t vote (laughs) voters want jobs and that’s the logic and in every meeting that I have with every other sector, you could feel the difference and some action follows.

What message do you have for the   Presidency?

Nigeria in particular and with President Goodluck Jonathan, I don’t think we would have the same challenges as we have had in the past. I met the president four years ago he was at our commission’s meeting in Abuja and I remember very clearly how much he believed in tourism. Rather I think what we need to talk about with the president is how we can help him to surmount the political, social and economic challenges that Nigeria is passing through and how they exist all together and how tourism in particular can help in overcoming these challenges.

Have you received any formal invitation from Nigeria as regards technical assistance?

Of course, we have many items of technical assistance on the table now and I am using this occasion to also sit with the minster and to make sure which is exactly what it means..Things are changing very quickly and sometimes what we agreed on two years ago may not be relevant now. There may be some new priorities and so I have to use this opportunity and that’s precisely why I’m having two executive officers joining us here. So the presence of both of them, together with the regional representative in Calabar, the level of people we brought here is a message in itself.

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