Arnie Weissmann
Arnie Weissmann

ACAPULCO, Mexico -- Former U.K. Prime Minister Tony Blair shows up at a surprising number of travel-related events. And, more surprising yet, his message isn't necessarily in the service of promoting travel to Great Britain.

In 2010, in his capacity as the representative to the Middle East of the Quartet (the U.S., Russia, the European Union and the United Nations), he invited a small group of journalists to tour areas of the Palestinian Authority. He did so in the belief that tourism could become an important economic pillar in a viable Palestinian state and that it was not too early to seed demand. I was on that trip and interviewed him on the topic.

The following year, he spoke at Conde Nast Traveler's "World Savers" function in New York City, addressing travel and its relationship to peace and prosperity in broader terms.

And in 2013, I saw him on stage again, at the Asian Regional Summit of the World Travel and Tourism Council. He had at that time recently established a foundation to promote religious and cultural tolerance, and he underscored travel's role in furthering his goals.

So it wasn't particularly surprising to see him listed as a keynote speaker at last week's Tianguis Turistico, the Mexico Tourism Board's annual marketplace.

Although his speech to an invited group of 400 attendees was off the record, he gave an exclusive interview to Travel Weekly just prior to going on stage.

He hasn't appeared to age much since I first interviewed him on the balcony of his hotel suite in Jerusalem in 2010. At that time, his mission and location had been closely linked, and I wondered if there was a particular connection he had to Mexico.

"I was actually the first British prime minister to visit Mexico," he said, "and 2015 is the year of Mexico in the U.K., and the year of the U.K. in Mexico. But beyond that, I've been here several times recently because my foundation has a big partnership with Monterrey Technical Institute. It's one of the leading online universities in the world, and we're working with it in the area of intercultural relations.

"Mexico is a fascinating country at a fascinating moment. It's got huge potential, and tourism is something it rightly wants to develop, not just in terms of sun and beaches but culture, history, food and eco-tourism. I'm a great fan of its business reform program, and the work that Tourism Minister [Claudia] Ruiz Massieu is doing."

I asked Blair if his frequent appearances in tourism-related venues were a reflection of a special interest in tourism or were part of a broader interest in economic development.

"It's part of my general interest in economics," he said. "But I guess for me tourism also represents the face of a country to the world. The way a country handles tourism tells you a lot about the country and culture. My guiding mission is around how you cross barriers of culture and faith, and tourism is one very exciting way to do that. A country that is developing tourism is also developing connectivity to the world, and that's important to the cause of peace."

For an example, he turned not to a zone of conflict, but to his homeland.

"When you reflect on the U.K., partly as a result of immigration and partly as a result of tourism, the cultural appetite in the U.K. has completely changed in the last 30 to 40 years. It's a far more open place now than it was when I was growing up."

Not surprisingly, he believes government has a role in facilitating tourism development, "whether it's for planning or for infrastructure or protecting the environment. It can promote tourism intelligently, and those that do get a result. And tourism is one of those industries where there's a clear correlation between a willingness to market and incoming traffic."

I wondered a bit about Tony Blair, traveler. He had told me that this was his first trip to Acapulco and that he had once taken his family on a Cancun vacation, but I asked whether it was really possible for him (and his well-known face) to experience destinations without his very presence changing the nature of what he was coming to experience.

"'Authenticity' is a big buzzword in travel," I said. "Do you find it's difficult to have authentic travel experiences?"

"What's lovely is that sometimes [your presence] is so unexpected that people don't recognize you. I'll be working out in the gym and can have a conversation with people. Of course, after some time, they may say, 'Your face looks familiar.'"

A gym is one thing, but I asked if he had ever done a "Prince and the Pauper" experiment, just walking around in public in such a manner that no one recognized him.

"It becomes a bit obvious when you're with security," he said. "But occasionally I have been able to sneak out with my security guys dressed casually, and wander around town or have a drink in a bar. If you do it quietly, you can sometimes do it like anyone else, and I love that. The interesting thing is that in most places, even China, I'd be recognized by some people.

"But you can also be in a very remote part of the world where people don't pay a lot of attention to the outside world, and that's lovely."

Blair feels that the current emphasis on authentic and experiential travel is in sync with what people are really looking for in a trip.

"The best tourism expresses the culture of a country and doesn't simply go for a uniform tourist experience," he said. "I think increasingly my experience is that tourists look for something that is authentic. Yes, it's good that there's a beach, but people want to know about history, get to know some people. They prefer good local food rather than bland international cuisine. One of the reasons Mexico is such an interesting place is that it is so rich in history and culture. Huge numbers of tourists? That's great. But I think looking at offering something deeper, that's the right way for tourism to go."

Finally, I wanted to circle back to something he had told me during our first interview. I had asked then whether he ever got discouraged with the seemingly endless Middle East peace process, and whether tourism development in Palestine was merely a pipe dream of sorts.

He'd answered that Northern Ireland had seemed a very tough challenge, but that peace was ultimately achieved. Unlike Northern Ireland before the peace accord, at least in the Middle East there was an agreement among the parties for a two-state solution.

But that agreement seemed more tenuous after Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu declared, before recent Israeli elections, that he no longer believed in a two-state solution. Was Blair now more concerned than in 2010?

Noting that Netanyahu has "now redeclared himself in favor of a two-state solution," Blair said, "In my view, it is the only solution that would work, but to prepare for it, we have to have a good development plan for Palestinian tourism."

The World Travel and Tourism Council, the United Nations World Tourism Organization, U.S. Travel and other industry public affairs groups have for years been working to convince governments of the vital role travel and tourism can play in economies. And they have been making progress. Blair's interests in economies, strengthening intercultural and interfaith bonds, along with his work seeking solutions to the most entrenched regional conflicts, combine to add dimension to arguments that there are plentiful dividends to international tourism beyond the immediate economic benefits.

Long may he travel and spread the word.

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