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Tourism: Centre of gravity has moved east to Asia – UNWTO Secretary General

By Roy Silva
The outpouring activity in travel and tourism has overwhelmed the economic sectors and the centre of gravity has moved east to Asia. It has become a major player not only in tourism but in many, many spheres, said Dr. Taleb Rifai, Secretary General of the United Nations World Tourim Organisation (UNWTO) on Thursday in Colombo.

“The year 2010 recorded a 7 per cent growth. 935 million visitors crossed international borders. And it was five times as much in domestic tourism. China alone recorded over 2 billion domestic trips within one year,” said Dr. Rifai opening the inaugural session of the three day 23rd Joint Meeting of the UNWTO Commission for South Asia and the UNWTO Commission for East Asia and the Pacific; and UNWTO Conference on Mainstreaming Tourism in the Media held at the Colombo Hilton..
The UNWTO chief also said that one of the main reasons why they were in Colombo, Sri Lanka was to render the Organisation’s support to the government of Sri Lanka in its endeavours to revitalize the island’s tourism industry.
Dr. Rifai also commended the country’s new slogan, Refreshingly Sri Lanka’ as it portrayed a new image of Sri Lanka and evoked a sense of peace and tranquility which contrasted with the difficult years which were now history.

“We are at the beginning of the second decade of the 21st century. And what decade it was. It started with the September 11 and ended with the most difficult economic crisis since World War II. It was a decades of so many challenges and also so many opportunities and success stories. A decade that brought so many disasters, and tsunamis we are all aware of, pandemics, wars, conflicts, crises both natural and man made. Yet the human spirit prevailed and tourism proved to be one of the most resilient and promising industries of these decades,” said the UNWTO chief.
The period had also seen some major breakthroughs taking place. 2010 has been one of the most remarkable turnarounds in the history. 2009 had been one of the most difficult years in the industry where the industry recorded a negative growth, Dr. Rifai observed.
This outpouring activity in travel and tourism had overwhelmed the economic sectors. Countries that were not spoken of as source markets had emerged very quickly. China, Brazil, Russia, India, had become major players, he observed.

He also noted that domestic tourism created much activity and regional solidarity had become a very important feature and intra regional travel was getting more and more important.
Dr. Rifai also emphasized on the dominance of IT and outpouring of technological advancement and said that it was changing our lives. “Who would have thought that today, with the use of the mobile phone, you could make a booking, check into an airline, go into a hotel, download the map of the city of Colombo, decide which monument to visit. All this had been possible through the technological advancements,” he noted.
Commenting on tourist traffic, he said that 204 million visitors crossed borders in the Asia Pacific alone last year and it was 23 million additional arrivals over 2009. And it was expected to grow. The growth was 13 per cent as against the 7 per cent of global growth, almost twice as much.
2011 also promises to be a globally very important year where economies are going to be consolidated may be not as good as 2010, he said.

“Since 2010, I have had the opportunity to present the case of tourism to over 20 heads of state and government and it is heartening to note that they have been very supportive of our noble cause of positioning tourism higher on the global agenda. We have also joined hands with the World Travel and Tourism Council (WTTC) to present an Open Letter to leaders of governments highlighting travel and tourism as one of the world’s biggest generators of sustainable businesses and jobs, a powerful driver of socio-economic growth and development and a key player in the transformation to the Green Economy,” said Dr. Rifai.
Continuing his observations on growth, Dr. Rifai said that the Asia Pacific region was particularly buoyant. It had been the first region to experience recovery, and it had been able to maintain growth momentum till it hit a new historic record of 204 million in the international tourist arrivals. Its 13 per cent growth had doubled the world average and with 23 million additional arrivals over 2009. Asia had become the strongest growing region. In keeping with that growth scenario, Sri Lanka had recorded an outstanding 46 per cent – a strong rebound over the decline of past years. 2011 promised to continue the growth trend of 2010 albeit at a more moderate rate ranging between 4 to 5 per cent worldwide and 7 t 9 per cent in the case of Asia Pacific region, said the UNWTO chief.

Commenting on the theme of the conference, Dr. Rifai said that it was very apt as it reflected the broader initiative of the UNWTO in mainstreaming tourism in the global agenda.
The remarkable growth rate registered recently proves Sri Lanka’s strong capacity to attract tourism, observed the UNTWO chief, who added that the world needed to know that fact, and the UNWTO conference with its focus on the media should serve the propose of raising awareness about what Sri Lanka had achieved.
“We shall also analyze how tourism can be a key vehicle to overcome adverse publicity and to rebuild the image of a country. This is precisely why we organized a media trip before this conference to enable our media friends to have first hand experience of the numerous cultural and natural attractions of this beautiful country,” said Dr. Rifai.

The UNWTO Secretary General announced that the world body was already halfway through with its technical assistance on the branding exercise which the UNWTO had identified as a key lament in Sri Lanka’s ongoing 2011 Visit Sri Lanka campaign.
“We will be equally honoured to take Sri Lanka’s third Tourism Development Master Plan a step further from the draft project document we submitted in January last year to the stage of the formulation of the master plan,” said Dr. Rifai.
Lakshman Yapa Abeywardana, Deputy Minister of Economic Development, in his address said that the UNWTO conference was timely as it coincided with an economic watershed and towards prosperity for our people.
“The significant growth of arrivals is just one indication of the rapid economic recovery. There is a massive infrastructure development taking place in the country with a new international airport, seaport and highways,” said Mr. Abeywardena.
Deputy Minister Lakshman Yapa Abeywardhana greeting Dr. Taleb Rifai, Secretary General of UNWTO after presenting him with a memento.