One of the reasons I’m proud to be part of the Travel and Tourism industry is the role we play in connecting people, as one global community. Our industry builds interest, curiosity, understanding, appreciation and affection among diverse cultures, people and places worldwide. Through travel, we learn about others – how they live and dream – and we discover similarities and new qualities in diversity.
In 2015, more than 1.18 billion people crossed an international border. Each person ventured out to find new places and possibilities and hopefully returned home enriched by the experience.
Travel and Tourism has long operated as an industry that takes care of all, to create a better world. Yet, at this time, our world is facing a severe crisis of humanity, a crisis brought to the fore as a result of the influx of refugees fleeing conflict in the Middle East to seek shelter in Europe. In excess of one million refugees crossed the Mediterranean Sea in 2015 each and every day, men, women, children and the elderly risk their lives. They travel literally thousands of kilometres on foot, by bus, train and raft, by any means available, to reach a place that is safe and offers hope for tomorrow.
A proportion of these refugees, being educated, skilled or employed, were nonetheless forced to flee their countries of origin. This perilous journey has claimed the lives of at least 5,000 people and a significant number of them have been children.
What concerns me most, over and above the numbers entering Europe, is that certain countries are shutting their doors. The Schengen zone, one of the world’s great success stories, is being severely tested. Borders are being closed and checkpoints set up. Trust in neighbours is waning.
What does this have to do with tourism? Everything. Sadly, in some nations that are anxious about how migrants or refugees may affect their society and its tourism, prejudices and paranoia are bubbling to the surface. This climate of fear suspicion challenges the core value of tourism: our global community.
Addressing the media at the opening of the tourism trade fair, ITB Berlin, Secretary-General of the UNWTO Taleb Rifai stated:
The challenge of refugees is a human obligation, with an implicit urgency and priority needed in global response. This is beyond tourism. Facing up to our human obligation is far more important than protecting our business.
He is unquestionably right. Our priorities should not be limited to business.
The refugee crisis does not bear on tourist destinations. The sites and routes of our itineraries remain as they were: iconic, quintessential and unforgettable. What the media broadcasts internationally is, to a large extent, a selective and sensationalised representation, reflecting the inept management of the situation by local governments. There is no reason to hold back from future travel or to make particular changes to travel already underway. There is more than enough room in our countries, and our hearts, for us all to move forwards. Our journeys must continue. The crisis is no reason to stay home.
What we mustn’t forget is that our industry is about caring for others, especially because of our differences, and working to make a positive impact on their lives. In the bigger picture, the influence refugees in Europe will bear on tourism is in one way only – constructively. These are people taking vast risks in search of a better life. Many are multilingual, highly skilled and ambitious, and in due course they too can play a role in the tourism industry in their newly found homes.
To travellers, Europe is open. Show your support and commitment by continuing to travel. Now more than ever is the time to live the spirit of tourism, by welcoming these most courageous of travellers as we celebrate the planet we share.