The once and future tourism president

By Arnie Weissmann
Arnie WeissmannPresident Obama, as noted in our editorial, has promoted travel-friendly policies that ease visa and entry processes and has supported congressional activity to promote the U.S. abroad. It's likely that in his second term, he will be motivated to defend, perhaps even enhance, his travel initiatives. 

That travel is an economy booster and job creator has been recognized by other world leaders, as well. Last June, in fact, travel's importance was for the first time codified by the heads of state of the countries with the 20 largest economies when the G20 leaders, meeting in Cabo San Lucas, committed in their annual declaration to "work toward developing travel facilitation initiatives in support of job creation, quality work, poverty reduction and global growth."

The words might seem somewhat straightforward and noncontroversial, especially given that travel is the second-largest contributor to the global economy, but I recently learned from participants in the G20 negotiations that there was high drama involved in getting those words onto paper. It almost didn't happen.

The information was given to me on the condition that I not identify certain nations by name, given the sensitivity of the negotiations. I do have consent to mention other actors and states which successfully championed the cause.

It turns out that six of the 20 members initially opposed including a paragraph on travel.

It would not be news to say that Mexico strongly supported inclusion. Mexico's minister of tourism, Gloria Guevara, working with Taleb Rafai, chief of the United Nations World Tourism Organization, had organized a pre-G20 Summit meeting of the group's tourism ministers in Merida, Mexico, a month in advance of the gathering of the heads of state to draft language. Mexican President Felipe Calderon, as host of the summit, had offered to propose the language.

The names of the states opposed to inclusion would likely surprise you. They are among our closest allies, both Western and Eastern.

"Some didn't want visas mentioned, some didn't want any travel language at all," said one person closely involved in the negotiations.

Another said, "There were those who felt only macroeconomic issues should be included, and they asked: Why tourism? And if tourism, why not other industries?"

Summit protocol slowed negotiations. "Channels were complicated," said one participant. "Everything had to go through the ministers of foreign affairs, and only their tourism ministers or heads of state could speak directly to them on the issue. President Calderon sent a letter to each of the [heads of state] discussing the importance of tourism and asking directly for their support."

At first, small movement was made. One of the countries that opposed the paragraph said it could live with it if one word was deleted.

But others continued to reject the concept of introducing specific industries and wanted only discussion of macroeconomic issues.

The inclusion of the word "visa" in the original language became a big problem. Some countries did not want the G20 dictating visa policy to them. The U.S. brokered a compromise, replacing "visa" with "travel facilitation."

Rafai and World Travel and Tourism Council (WTTC) President David Scowsill were enlisted to work diplomatic channels in countries where they had close ties.

In the end, the combined support of Mexico and the U.S. broke the stalemate. "Calderon was instrumental in getting it on the table and pushing for support," said one participant. "Obama was key in getting everyone to finally compromise and consent."

For the past few years, two presidents in North America have been at the forefront of travel promotion. Interestingly, both started off on the wrong foot with travel interests in their own countries, with Obama widely seen as putting a chill on corporate meetings after criticizing forums held by Troubled Asset Relief Program recipients and Calderon going so far as to propose that tourism be demoted to a sub-Cabinet position.

But both leaders ultimately embraced tourism -- Obama seeing it as a way to create jobs that can't be exported and Calderon trying to counter the perception that Mexico was unsafe to visit.

Calderon ultimately embodied the "tourism presidency," tirelessly promoting Mexico and speaking at venues from the WTTC Global Summit to Travel Weekly's Mexico Leadership Forum. He leaves office at the end of this month, vacating the position of global tourism leader.

President Obama, it appears, is well positioned to fill the vacancy.

Email Arnie Weissmann at aweissmann@travelweekly.com and follow him on Twitter. 
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