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Respect, value and enjoy what is different

A story told by Taleb Rifai Madrid, Spain

Until the end of 2017, Taleb Rifai was Secretary-General of the United Nations World Tourism Organisation (UNWTO). Mr. Rifai accepted the moral sponsorhip of 'Connect Your Story'.

Taleb Rifai recently travelled to Bangladesh. The head of the World Tourism Organisation was welcomed by the Minister of Tourism in one of the world’s most densely populated countries. “While my host was extensively apologising for the traffic chaos, I was enjoying the car ride. I saw life, energy!” In his Madrid office, the man exudes passion. Taleb Rifai travels around the world as an ambassador for the contribution of tourism to peace, sustainability, welfare and solidarity everywhere.


Mr. Rifai describes a chaotic ride through Bengali streets. With a bright smile, he paints a picture of shabby streets, bustling with life, teeming with children, elderly people, agitated street vendors, people talking to each other making huge gestures. A city choked with traffic. Cars honking. Bells ringing. People shouting. “Sitting next to me in the car the Minister went on apologising relentlessly. Sorry, sorry, sorry, he kept saying. But I found it fascinating. I was seeing life. I was seeing energy! Stories everywhere”.

Better man

“I’ve visited nearly every country in the world”, says Taleb. “That has fundamentally changed me. I look at life differently. You can say I’ve become a better man, specifically because I’ve been able to travel”.
How does travelling make a person better, more complete? Taleb: “Allow me to tell you another story. During a trip to Ethiopia I visited a Christian church. I was asked to take off my shoes. I saw how men and women were practising their religion separately. I’m a Muslim myself and there I could see how many similarities there are between our rituals and those of the oldest Christian church. This discovery further opened up my world.

Our common origin

Travelling confronts people with differences and at the same time encourages them to discover how much we are the same after all. How we are one human community of people sharing the same origin. Taleb saw Lucy, the skeleton of a woman who lived 300 million years ago in Ethiopia. He leaps out of his chair and shows us the huge world map on the wall behind him. “There, in East Africa, lies the origin of all of us!” His hand travels from Africa to Europe, from Africa to Asia, from Africa to North and South America. “This is where our oldest ancestors began their journey. And there, there is where some of them first settled and populated the whole world”.

“Who are we to say we are too different to live together?”

He sits back down, looks at us and asks: “Who are we, then, to say we are so different? That we are too different to live together?” Emphatically adding: “The BBC made a brilliant series about this, ‘The Incredible Human Journey’. Everyone should watch it”.

Look beyond prejudice

Nonsense, then, all this focus on race and supposedly unbridgeable differences. We are family. Taleb: “Travelling opens your eyes to people, habits and things that are very different to what you know. You learn to look beyond your prejudices. In other people’s eyes you first see a human being. A human being who can be different than you. The beauty of humanity resides precisely in our differences. That is what makes us human”.

“Travel, and you’ll learn to look further than your prejudices. In other people’s eyes you first see a human being".


“But it’s not just about the experience in itself. You must be willing to think about it”, says Taleb. Travelling does not end when you get home, he seems to be implying insistently. Sort out your experiences, think about what you’ve learned, about the meaning you want to give to it. That’s when travelling becomes part of who you are and how you look at the world.

Authored by Griet Bouwen Bilzen