The world of 2017 is very different from that of 2010, when I first took the helm of WTTC. We have seen major geopolitical movements - from the Arab Spring to the rise in populism; the rising number and changing nature of terrorist attacks, particularly in Western countries; the growing economic power of China and India; the rise of the sharing economy; the move to mobile; and a wide awareness of and almost complete acceptance of the urgency with which we need to address climate change.
Our world in 2017 is uncertain, vulnerable, and unpredictable. Despite this, Travel & Tourism (T&T) growth has remained at around 4% a year. Disruption has been part of the sector’s DNA for the past 20 years, and the sector has emerged stronger and more resilient for it. Low cost carriers, TripAdvisor, online hotel aggregators, the sharing economy - these new business models and approaches have changed the landscape of T&T forever. But throughout this time, all sectors of the industry have weathered their storms, survived, pivoted their business models, and thrived. No large brand name has gone bankrupt, even with the competitive pressures and impacts of the global financial crisis.
This ability to adapt to market forces, respond to consumer demand and adopt new technologies is what I believe ensures the future of T&T, as the sector has to face up to the macro level challenges of our time, be they terrorism, climate change or the fourth industrial revolution.
I am often asked whether technology will bring ultimate pressure on T&T - will robots replace tourism workers; will virtual reality and augmented reality replace the need to travel; will video conferencing wipe out business travel? To all of these I say a resounding ‘no’:
Will robots replace tourism workers?
Artificial Intelligence, machine learning and robotics will certainly impact jobs in the sector over time. Many jobs will become redundant, but others will be created. Service delivery in T&T relies on the people contact, it is the people that ultimately define the experience whether you are travelling for business or leisure.
Will Virtual Reality and Augmented Reality replace the need to travel?
The speed of movement in this area will be phenomenal, but it will enhance the industry rather than compete with it. At the moment T&T is just playing with the technology, but the opportunities - be it children learning in a classroom, training tourism workers to spot potential terrorists, engineers learning how to diagnose problems and replace fan blades on jet engines, or a terminally ill person visiting the world from their bed - are huge.
Will online communications wipe out business travel?
This debate has been raging for twenty years. Now we are seeing skype, whatsapp, wechat, Twitter, Facebook and video conferencing communications merging smoothly over time on communication devices, for both business meetings and leisure experiences with friends. But while these platforms facilitate connectivity, people will still want to travel to see the world. Business travel will increase as the human contact required for deal making will never disappear. More of the approach work can be done using technology to ensure that face to face meetings achieve what is desired.
Do I, however, foresee the end of tourism websites? Yes. I believe we will see the end of websites as apps become all consuming on mobile devices. In fact, mobile connectivity will continue to dominate, and people will learn to switch off to guard their leisure time from the ‘always available’ mentality demanded by corporations.
But however much the sector is able to grow off the back of technological developments and opportunities, this will all come to nothing if T&T does not firmly establish its credentials as a force for good in the world. We know that the economic and social impact of the sector is significant in all corners of globe, however we also know that there is still a lot of work to be done to ensure that T&T growth really is inclusive and environmentally sustainable. The UN’s Sustainable Development Goals provide a great framework for making and monitoring change. I urge all players in Travel & Tourism to engage with the SDGs and show how their activities are aligned with them.
For while government recognition of T&T has come a long way since the founding fathers of WTTC first met in the early 1990s we are still operating in a world where tourism is often too low down the list of priorities. Policy makers need to understand that T&T can and does contribute positively to sustainable development, and is committed to growing this contribution. In these disrupted and disruptive times, knee-jerk responses to threats be they from terrorism to climate change or immigration more often than not can impact T&T disproportionately. This not only affects the bottom line of businesses, but has a direct and often devastating effect on all those people - currently around 292 million - whose livelihoods depend on tourism.
As I step down from WTTC I call upon the whole T&T sector, from the CEOs I have represented to the government ministers I have worked with, to the 1.2 billion people who travel each year, to come together to ensure that travel, be it for business or leisure, continues to improve lives, protect the planet and be a force for peace, security and understanding in an ever more uncertain world.