The World Travel & Tourism Coalition Raises its Hand


Staying faithful that the light at the end of the travel recession tunnel isn’t an oncoming high-speed train.

If you write about the cool side of travel long enough you’ll eventually bang into the engines of its business. Billed as the foremost gathering of travel and tourism leaders in the world and declared the “Super Bowl of travel” by CBS travel correspondent Peter Greenberg, the 10th Global Travel & Tourism Summit in Beijing, China generated long overdue awareness of the world’s largest industries–10% of the world’s GDP–and reminded me that on any journey, although the first thing we pack is ourselves, some bring golf shirts. ..or models.

True: the travel industry is the world’s biggest employer providing approximately 235 million jobs, employing one out of every 12 people directly or indirectly. Take that, oil, technology, and auto industries.

Internet travel guru and IAC Chairman/CEO Barry Diller, one of the three-day conferences most energized speakers, raved about Trip Advisor’s “absolutely faithful reporters” and “organized word of mouth.” Later, on stage in-the-round, Greenberg, celebrating his trademark wry bluntness clarifying that he “trusts citizen journalists like [he] trusts citizen surgeons.” In a one-on-one chat with Greenberg, I inquired about Trip Advisor’s citizen reporters and he granted them a thumbs-up, noting their hotel review abuse-detecting use of algorithms.

If a person’s character may be learned from the adjectives which they habitually use in conversation, the new global travel mood buzzword is mobile–land on peoples’ mobile devices or move out of the way. Of course, the power of blogging also resounds here. As an author (when non-famous people still made money writing books) and freelance writer who previously enjoyed fair pay, I’m one of many traditional travel journalists who have difficulty comprehending unpaid blogging as anything but a hobby. Travel writing has evolved into an army of volunteers who fail to notice that classic travel stories are not breaking news. Maybe it’s just a term hang-up, but blog sounds to me like a word describing the gurgle a large snake makes when vomiting a partially digested rat. We need a new term to describe this emerging and vital publishing form. Give diary-keeping the dignity it deserves by first doing a little crafting and polishing before sharing. Emerson, Whitman and Thoreau wrote journals that were publishable, and today’s writers in journal mode should hope to do the same.

Rant complete; I do comprehend that most of the general public has already voted with its collective mouse.

Skyscraper-showcasing Beijing was an apt place to host this conference–especially for me because when I first arrived there in 1987 bicycles and occasional buses were the only transport modes; now replaced by unrelenting auto traffic jams. One upside to this crimson smog-cloaked urban checkerboard is its vibrant expatriate community gatherings on rooftop bars.

China is the second largest travel market in the world, trailing only the US, which is losing market share annually. While the summit tackled issues including adapting to changing marketplaces, tapping emerging markets, digital convergence, evolving consumer demand, travel patterns and visa policies, Cathay Pacific CEO Anthony Tyler wondered aloud why airlines have to foot the bill for heightened security when that tab should be absorbed by general public safety funds.

I sidestepped into travel writing after a decade of backpacking around the world and never met a hardcore traveler wearing a golf shirt. Some of the travel company CEO types attending the forum wore golf shirts at the more casual events and this reminded me that although these guys get around, this is still a corporate endeavor for many of them.

I know other supposed travel writers who have evolved into PR-schmoozing convention hounds, but the landmark World Travel & Tourism Council (WTTC) annually brings together country ambassadors, travel industry veterans, CEOs, and sophisticated tourism researchers to evolve sustainability balanced with growth. Obligatory speeches at any conference can be a yawn, but not here. The summit also dolled out its Tourism for Tomorrow sustainable travel awards.

The Summit’s Center Stage
While covering the surprisingly interesting forums I was sidetracked by one of WTTC’s founding members, Geoffrey Kent, who’s in a league with Richard Branson and photographer Peter Beard. A real traveler gone corporate–he owns top-notch expedition tour company Abercrombie & Kent–who is still spiritually on that motorcycle he rode from Kenya to Cape Town at 16 years-old. Born in 1942, his young-at-heart personality is balanced by the knowing glint in his eye. An old polo-playing pal of Prince Charles, Geoffrey remains active running five miles four times a week and with continued travels to the edge with his girlfriend, Brazilian model Otavia Jardim…I asked Otavia about the key to a couple traveling without a hitch. Otavia, who met Geoffrey years ago on a yacht in Portofino, Italy, insisted that roving couples should pack one bag together. Geoffrey then added “And be punctual!” breaking into a grin.

Getting back to business, I asked Geoffrey how the WTTC started 20 years ago: “The World Travel & Tourism Council was established when a group of us, all CEOs, came to the realization that although Travel & Tourism is the largest service industry in the world — and the biggest provider of jobs — nobody knew it.” He added, “We needed research that would quantify the impact of tourism on national economies to raise awareness of its potential for creating wealth and employment.”

Geoffrey Kent and Otavia Jardim flanking Chinese tourism enthusiast The most exciting global tourism evolution, according to WTTC experts, has been the emergence of the BRIC countries (Brazil, Russia, India and China) and their recognition of the important role that travel and tourism can play in developing their economies. China in particular has recognized travel and tourism as a strategic pillar of their national economy and has invested heavily in infrastructure that will generate long-term, sustainable returns, and increased employment opportunities.

The most comical moment gracing the conference was when CNBC anchor Erin Burnett, hosting a panel discussion on the global re-ordering of tourism, said in her intro that after having just visited Taiwan she’d now visited 65 official countries. Making that claim in the heart of China, the motherland that despises any reference to Taiwan’s independence, resounded a dull thump that would be similar to trying to turn back the clock on women’s voting rights while appearing as a guest on The View. Ever gracious, Burnett did recover quickly. The show must go on.

BN with CNBC’s Erin Burnett
In the end, we all started off life basically the same, and our choices have made us who we are at the moment. Travel industry people take enjoying life for granted, golf shirts or not. I like that.The most vital thing I learned at this prolific meeting of perennially vacationing minds is that, good luck willing, travel and tourism will continue to pull ahead as the most vital industry our world has–and that age really doesn’t matter.The magic of spending more on experiencing than having…