Arnie Weissmann
Arnie Weissmann

ACAPULCO, Mexico -- Mexico's news media called it "Taleb Rifai's Tianguis."

How did a Jordanian architect come to dominate this year's Tianguis Turistico, the massive annual trade show held here last week to promote Mexico? The answer reflects several aspects of today's unpredictable, often inexplicable world.

Rifai, who left architecture for government work and eventually was elected secretary general of the United Nations World Tourism Organization (UNWTO), went on stage during Tianguis' opening session after a number of Mexican politicians and tourism officials had already spoken. Their speeches had been greeted with various levels of enthusiasm or lack of interest. One speaker who overstayed his welcome was even cut short by a derisive whistle from the audience.

But not even Mexico's president, Enrique Pena-Nieto, or the charismatic secretary of tourism, Enrique de la Madrid, came close to galvanizing the audience as Rifai did.

How did it become "his" Tianguis?

Government officials and politicians (with the possible exception of our own president) tend to weigh their words carefully and tread lightly, if at all, when discussing consequential matters of state. So although there was not just an elephant but a woolly mammoth in the room, it was not directly addressed by Mexican officials during Tianguis' opening session.

The topic avoided? Sixty percent of foreign visitors who arrive by air to Mexico are U.S. citizens, but President Trump wants to build literal and figurative walls between the countries. For the most part, speakers pointed to reasons for optimism while studiously avoiding the mention of any underlying anxiety that might be felt by listeners who make a living selling Mexican holidays to foreign visitors (in other words, everyone in the audience except Carlos Slim and me).

Rifai not only addressed their insecurities, but he did so poetically and in a way designed to express and instill confidence in his audience.

"I believe no wall will isolate the country, and anyone who tries [to] will only isolate themselves," he said. Speaking directly to Pena-Nieto, he added, "You are on the south side of the [geographic] divide ... but [on] the right side of history. ... The future is Mexico."

That line earned him a standing ovation and cheers of approval. At that moment, it became "his" Tianguis.

I spoke with both Rifai and de la Madrid the following day about the speech, about Rifai's intentions and about its effect on the audience.

Rifai's view of the position in which Mexicans find themselves is philosophical, professional, practical and personal.

"Look," he said. "I carry a diplomatic passport. I also carry a U.N. passport. But I still don't want to, at all, take any chance or risk that an immigration officer will harass me for absolutely no reason. I'd rather not go [to the U.S.], not now. The United States will always be a great country, but the world is full of alternatives."

Rifai, whose family is Muslim, will enter the country as his job demands (although the UNWTO is based in Madrid, he has an office at the U.N. headquarters in New York). But for the time being, "if it was a choice of where to go for vacation ..." He shook his head.

His job description, simply put, is to help nations design policy that promotes and facilitates tourism, and it's clear that his personal feelings inform his professional outlook. But, he asserts, so do facts.

"In the last three weeks alone, [the U.S. lost] $183 million in potential inbound travel revenue," he said. "Travel and tourism in the U.S. provides 9 million direct jobs and 22 million indirect jobs. If [the Trump administration's goal] is to protect jobs in the United States, I'm not sure [these policies] are going to lead to that objective."

Mexico tourism secretary Enrique de la Madrid and United Nations World Tourism Organization secretary general Taleb Rifai at a lunch held in Rifai’s honor during the Tianguis Turistico trade show.
Mexico tourism secretary Enrique de la Madrid and United Nations World Tourism Organization secretary general Taleb Rifai at a lunch held in Rifai’s honor during the Tianguis Turistico trade show. Photo Credit: Arnie Weissmann

Openness vs. security

He is also concerned that not only are jobs at risk but that the Trump administration's other signature issue, security, is likewise undermined by its immigration stance.

"Whose agenda are we really serving?" he wondered. "We're doing exactly what the terrorists want us to do. They want to isolate us from each other, hate each other. They want us to stop traveling. They target hotels, restaurants, airports -- the tourism infrastructure. They know what they're doing, and sometimes, out of ignorance, we're serving their agenda. That's what's happening with our friends north of this border."

Part of Rifai's mandate is to facilitate security for travelers.

"Openness is not the opposite of security," he said. "If you believe that, you're not taking security seriously."

Better security comes from cooperation and the sharing of experiences, knowledge and intelligence, he said. And because he believes the world is becoming less secure, he is creating a UNWTO security task force, bringing together security experts, travel professionals and the media, who he believes are crucial to spread information.

In my conversation with de la Madrid earlier that day, he acknowledged he has to weigh his words carefully, but he "absolutely" agreed with the spirit of Rifai's onstage comments.

"Taleb was much more straightforward," the secretary said. "But he was also expressing support for us Mexicans to believe in ourselves and that if you are fighting for the right issues, you will end up on the right side [of history]."

And he feels his approach, which is focused on the positive and is not directly critical of the U.S., will serve Mexico well. 

"We have built an extraordinary relationship and partnership with the U.S.," de la Madrid said. "It has taken years. But we have seen the advantage of working together, and that the story is not being well told in the U.S. More than 6 million jobs in the U.S. depend on U.S. exports to Mexico."

A former banker, he pointed out that the balance of trade between Mexico and the U.S. is 10 times more advantageous to the U.S. than the trade balance between the U.S. and China. The automobile industry in the U.S., he said, is competitive because of joint production with Mexico.

"And all these speeches about Mexicans being criminals or whatever," de la Madrid said, "they're also wrong. Facts, supported by U.S. statistics, say the opposite."

Rifai's enthusiastic reception from the audience might also be connected to a sense of the unfairness of being mischaracterized and pulled into a tense situation that Mexico doesn't want to be drawn into.

"We feel we are not being treated very well, but at the end of the day, we don't mind because we know that that is going to pass," de la Madrid said. "We know that reality has a funny way of imposing itself."

Rifai will be leaving his post at the UNWTO at the conclusion of his second three-year term on Dec. 31. I asked him what he hoped he could accomplish in the balance of his final year.

"We have few options when it comes to changing things on the ground," he said. "We're a voice of truth and frankness in this world -- at least we ought to be. The best we can do, the best we can all do, is raise our voices and speak the truth without fear or hesitation."

It seems that especially these days, it's hard to find agreement on what is truth. And I have no doubt there are many who would judge Rifai's views to be misguided at best.

But a person takes a giant step toward common truths, I believe, if he or she not only has the ability to understand what's on the minds and in the hearts of people from other cultures but can articulate it, perhaps more clearly than the people themselves.

I'll be sorry to see Rifai lose his pulpit, but among his accomplishments is that he has clearly defined the type of person who should succeed him.

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