Tourism Becomes an Industry
For aficionados of travel magazines filled with breathtaking photographs of boutique hotels on sugar-white beaches or yachts cruising turquoise colored seas, the United Nations World Tourism Organization is a letdown.
This agency dedicated to one of life's great pleasures is housed in a nondescript ten-story building on Madrid's Calle Capitán Haya, hidden in a leafy neighborhood with far more impressive government ministries and foreign embassies. It looks like what it is: one of the more obscure organizations in the enormous United Nations, a backwater near the bottom of the international pecking order. Moreover, it is dedicated to the business of travel and tourism, not its romance.
Most of the writers of those glamorous travel articles have never heard of the UNWTO, and of those that have, few have visited the office. "I get their emails, but I rarely read them," said Stuart Emmrich, then editor of the influential Travel section of the New York Times. This disconnect is a testament to travel and tourism's reputation as a worry-free break from the real world, not a serious business. The UNWTO is one of the few institutions that recognizes travel as one of the largest I industries in the world and studies its extraordinary dimensions to understand how it is changing the world.
The very idea of describing travel and tourism as a serious industry or business is an oxymoron to many people. The oil industry is serious. Finance is serious. Trade is serious. Manufacturing is serious. Foreign policy and economic policy are serious. Tourism is a frivolous pursuit: fun, sometimes educational in the lightest sense, often romantic, even exotic. Tourism's low reputation is a big reason why the agency is in Spain.
When it came into being after World War II, the United Nations ostracized Spain because it was led by Francisco Franco, Europe's last fascist ruler. Spain remained something of a pariah on the world scene in the 1950s. (Adolf Hitler had been a supporter of General Franco; Nazi armed forces helped Franco come to power.) The U.N. slowly accepted Spain back into the normal world of diplomacy as Franco loosened up and Spain became more democratic. Finally, when Franco was on his deathbed, the U.N. agreed to set up a small tourism policy office in Madrid in 1974. The sufficiently inconsequential tourism body wouldn't raise too many questions, and Spain could be selected over two rivals that were not considered top caliber at the time.
"There were three finalistsZagreb, Mexico City, and Madrid," Patrice Tedjini, the UNWTO's historian, told me in his office at the Madrid headquarters. "We wanted to show that democracy was moving in Spain." Back then, the tourism office was a lowly subsidiary of another U.N. body. It would take another thirty years for the World Tourism Organization to win status as a full-fledged independent United Nations agency, a reward for the work it had done to define the industry and fitfully raise its profile. The drab UNWTO office in Madrid was my logical first stop in a five-year-long study of the tourism industry. The UNWTO is the repository of rare data on how tourism works, how it drives economies and how governments direct it, so its headquarters was the logical place to begin my research into how all of the industry's disparate pieces fit together and determine what it means to be a tourist. Snorkeling in the pure waters off Costa Rica, studying documents in Paris, tracking down the "anonymous" benefactor of a Zambian wildlife preserve, interviewing Chinese tour guides who promote the Communist Party while reciting the virtues of pandas, I inevitably saw the world through an entirely new prism. If war revolution marked the last century, the competition for prosperity and the marketing of ways to enjoy that new wealth is molding the early years of the twenty-first century. The travel and tourism industry, with its romantic promises and serious perils, is central to that constant commerce. This book is about that journey as well as its findings.
From Overbooked: The Exploding Business of Travel and Tourism by Elizabeth Becker. Copyright © 2013 by Elizabeth Becker. Reprinted by permission of Simon & Schuster, Inc. All Rights Reserved.
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