Arnie WeissmannLast week at the World Travel and Tourism Council (WTTC) Regional Summit in Seoul, South Korea, former British Prime Minister Tony Blair observed that elected leaders "begin at their most popular and least capable, and end at their least popular and most capable. You wish you had extra time."

And indeed, many retired presidents and prime ministers devote much of their time after leaving office to work with foundations or organizations that can use their experience to help tackle difficult, global issues. In Blair's case, he works as a representative of the Quartet (U.S., Russia, the European Union and the United Nations), seeking peace in the Middle East.

Interestingly, Blair's world view was remarkably similar -- almost identical, in fact -- to that expressed by Bill Clinton when he addressed the WTTC in Abu Dhabi last spring. And both believe that the travel industry has a potentially enormous role in influencing which direction the world will go and that there is a tremendous amount at stake.

Most of us look at the world and see an excess of polarity -- for Americans, nothing is more obvious than Democrats and Republicans in Congress -- but for both of these men, the truly key divide is between the open-minded and closed-minded: those who are prepared to accept different cultures and those who shut down in the face of it; those who accept the presence of other faiths -- or no faith -- and those who are intolerant; those who welcome diverse points of view and those who shut their borders in the belief that their way of looking at the world is superior to others.

The open-minded/closed-minded divide has become more and more important, they believe, as globalization has increased and technology has connected people in ways that were simply unimaginable a few decades ago.

Given their backgrounds and the worlds they're currently steeped in, it's not surprising that Blair and Clinton would come to similar conclusions. And once this paradigm is defined, the ways in which travel is on the side of openness are self-evident. In fact, the industry has been saying for decades that public diplomacy is an unsung benefit when governments facilitate inbound and outbound travel.

During this summit, I had the opportunity to sit in on a closed-door roundtable of Asian tourism ministers and CEOs in the travel industry, then moderate a discussion about visa facilitation and multi-destination tourism promotion.

What I discovered was a level of commitment to interregional cooperation I had not dreamed existed. In particular, the countries comprising the Association of Southeast Asian Nations have not only made it extraordinarily easy for their citizens to travel from one country in the group to another, but are working in various subsets to draw people to the region and then make it easy for them, too, to get around.

A few examples:

If one visits Thailand or Cambodia, the other country will honor the visa.

In the first quarter of this year, inbound traffic to India increased 35% from countries whose citizens could get a visa upon demand at the airport; those who need them in advance increased only 3.3%. They will soon experiment with a "collective landing permit" in which any group of four tourists can get a visa upon landing if working through approved travel partners and if details are provided 72 hours in advance.

China is on an airport building spree with the goal that no one will have to drive more than 90 minutes to get to an airport.

It's most likely that these policies to facilitate travel were motivated more by economics than by an awareness of the open/closed divide, but it's worth noting that these activities weren't derailed by a closed-minded faction.

One of the pleasures of this meeting for me was getting to know Ramon Jimenez, tourism secretary of the Philippines. The United Nations World Tourism Organization (UNWTO) has created an "openness" index which ranks every member country against criteria that determine the degree to which it facilitates travel. The Philippines are the seventh most open.

Terrorism is not unknown in the Philippines; I asked Jimenez how he convinced security agencies to be open.

"Sharing information and cooperation is actually the best way to increase security," he replied. "If you're closed off, you know a lot less."

To download a PDF of the UNWTO's Tourism Visa Openness Report, go to http://tinyurl.com/oo5585h.  

Email Arnie Weissmann at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter.

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