Arnie Weissmann
Arnie Weissmann

The Bloomberg Global Business Forum, held during the week the United Nations General Assembly gathered, brought together heads of state, leaders of intergovernmental agencies and prominent business executives to discuss the impact of world events on corporations and free trade.

It was a gathering of globalists. Leaders who rose on isolationist or nationalist platforms either didn't receive invitations or didn't accept them.

We had an opportunity to chat with a familiar face: Dara Khosrowshahi, the former CEO of Expedia who is currently running Uber.

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Also notably absent, for the most part, were leaders from the travel industry. Uber CEO (and former Expedia chief) Dara Khosrowshahi appeared on a breakout-room panel with Virgin Hyperloop co-founder Josh Giegel, though their shared linkage to transportation was likely coincidental. The panel topic was how young people are shaping economies, and other panelists, including Chobani CEO Hamdi Ulukaya, had no direct ties to travel.

Throughout the day, conversations were stimulating and thought-provoking. U.K. prime minister Theresa May tried her best to reassure IBM CEO Ginni Rometty that a post-Brexit world would embrace free trade. But that presupposes a deal with Europe that is far from assured. ("We're preparing for a deal, and we're preparing for no deal," May said.)

There were peeks into the future. Robin Li, CEO of Baidu (China's answer to Google), told International Monetary Fund managing director Christine Lagarde, "The internet was the appetizer. AI [artificial intelligence] is the main course."

Ford CEO James Hackett said we'd all likely be in electric cars by 2030 and that the combination of AI and cloud computing will enable autonomous vehicles to be "mediated" through "smart intersections" without the need for stoplights. Plus -- and I'm really looking forward to this -- vacant "smart" parking spaces will direct vehicles to their locations.

Also on the traffic front, Khosrowshahi, Hackett and Lyft co-founder John Zimmer appeared together in support of a Bloomberg Philanthropies initiative called SharedStreets, whose goal is to help urban planners better understand the dramatic changes that autonomous cars and increasing ride-sharing are likely to bring. The three executives outlined how they provide data to cities and introduced a phrase I hadn't before known was a point of concern among city planners: "curb management."

But the absence of travel and tourism content beyond automobiles was bewildering. Travel is one of the largest industries in the world, employing one of every 10 people. It has been growing faster than global GDP for many years and contributes significantly to the domestic economies of many speakers, including the leaders of Mexico, South Africa, New Zealand, Switzerland, the Netherlands, Spain, Norway and Colombia. (Given the mutual animosity between Michael Bloomberg and President Trump, it was no surprise the latter wasn't in attendance. Nor that Bill Clinton was.)

I certainly didn't make eye contact with every delegate, nor could I attend all concurrent breakout panels, but I didn't come across one airline or hotel CEO, and none were on the program. The topics raised were important, but given the industry's prominence, I thought travel would make a front-and-center appearance.

I suppose the president of Spain has bigger concerns in Catalonia than overtourism in Barcelona, but I nonetheless was hoping he might touch on it.

Given tourism's importance to the economy of every country represented at the forum, I'd have liked to have heard it mentioned in discussions about the threats inherent in the global drift toward nativism.

I would have liked to have seen a tech discussion on the importance of biometrics, both to security and for enabling the massive volume of people who will be crossing borders in coming years.

I can't help but think that despite all the progress travel and tourism have made to be taken seriously as an industry (thanks largely to the efforts of the World Travel & Tourism Council and the U.S. Travel Association), we still carry the odd stigma of being regarded as a lightweight industry because of our leisure components.

Ironically, the next day was World Tourism Day, upstaged (just a bit) in America by testimony in the Kavanaugh nomination hearing. I happened to be in Washington that day, too, to moderate a session of the Center for Responsible Travel (Crest) forum on overtourism, held in conjunction with George Washington University.

Throughout the day, I was reminded about how many aspects of society and the planet's well-being tourism touches.

Among the serious issues that surfaced at the Crest forum, thanks to a mix of passion and enlightened self-interest, were the need to better protect, preserve and present cultural treasures; the necessity of respecting and supporting local culture; and the privilege and obligation not only to work with people who live in tourism destinations but to strive to understand what they do want as well as what they don't want.

It could be argued that travel is, by definition, the first global industry, and that some of the issues it faces today have been around in one form or another for millennia. For example, graffiti dating back to the Roman Empire defaces some Egyptian antiquities.

Our industry has no shortage of conferences. We're good at talking among ourselves. I fear, however, that if we're not being taken seriously by other industries, the insightful and important things we have to say will never be heard outside of travel's own echo chamber.


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