Mr. Rifai (°49) is the head of the UNWTO since 2010. At the end of the unusual year 2017, Taleb Rifai will hand on the torch. We’ve travelled to Madrid, to meet the man and landed in a roller-coaster of stories and wisdom. His warm smile, glimmering eyes and experienced vision led us through a labyrinth of stories and conclusions.
“When did tourism come into my life?” It was in 2001. As a minister in Jordan I was meeting with the Prime Minister. The phone rings, he picks it up and listens. His face turns red from anger and he slams down the receiver. The PM looks at me and asks me shortly: “Would you like to be Minister of Tourism? Job’s available”. Taleb Rifai, Secretary-General of the UNWTO laughs out loud when he thinks about the event. “Yes, that is how I rolled into tourism. Unknown to me then, a passion now. And now I know it: I’ve missed many things before 2001. I can now say that travelling is a human right. And social tourism – including domestically – is a good start to get there”.
Tourism has a magic influence on people’s lives, says Taleb Rifai. “You need to travel in order to see that people can be better than you are. You learn to compare situations, to better understand your own life. You become more tolerant and sensitive to other people’s stories”.
Travelling is a right
Every human being has a right to see the world, says Taleb Rifai emphatically. “And I hope that governments will understand that every citizen must be able to exercise that right. Travelling is part of everyone’s life, both inside and outside their country borders. Social tourism is a good start”, says Rifai, “for people with little or no travel experience. And for society. Because travellers leave their marks on the places they visit. Their presence changes the destination, makes it more prosperous, more open and connected to the world”.
“Social tourism is a good start for people with little travel experience. And for society, because travellers make it more prosperous and more open”. - Taleb Rifai
Learn to travel
“Travelling also means being able to take a train, daring to step on a plane, booking a hotel, overcoming that threshold. People who travel regularly do not realize how difficult that can be. We cannot simply assume that travelling is within everyone’s power and reach”.
And that is exactly where social tourism comes in, according to Taleb Rifai. Social tourism is the starting point for travelling. Going on a domestic holiday trip helps people develop skills in terms of transportation, accommodation and activities. Taleb: “Travelling in a group also helps lowering the thresholds. We often see novice travellers start out in a group trip. Only little by little do they envisage travelling on their own”.
First in groups, then on their own
Need an example? Taleb: “When the Wall came down, the Russians began travelling. You’ve seen them, those large Russian-speaking groups also invaded your art cities. They came and went, you could hardly communicate with them. In the beginning you would hear a lot of criticism. Local people and attractions felt overwhelmed. Little by little the criticism subsided. Russians increasingly travel individually. But we should not forget that we need this first phase before people take a step beyond their borders”.
"Novice travellers often go on group vacations. Later on they venture towards contacts with local people”.
Understanding and creating opportunities
Understanding and support is important for the authorities, attractions and local population. Realising that new tourists need to overcome certain thresholds. Which is why they first travel in groups. And also why they can have a somewhat closed attitude. Later, when people have learned the true meaning of travel, they venture on individual trips. This takes time, but it is worth it, according to Taleb Rifai: “Because the more people travel on their own, the more they have contacts with the local population. Therein lies the magic of tourism: having contacts with local people as well as fellow travellers makes us more open and more tolerant”.