BANGKOK — Officially, the theme of last week's World Travel & Tourism Council's Global Summit here was sustainable travel, but the spread of populism and how it could impact the free flow of travel was on everyone's mind.
From former U.K. prime minister David Cameron to Marriott International CEO Arne Sorenson, speakers here warned the industry not to brush aside popular concerns about immigration and terror.
"Do not underestimate the concerns that ordinary voters have, and politicians have on their behalf, about the danger of extremists and terrorists being able to travel," Cameron said in a keynote address.
The issue speaks to the discomfort of an industry in which policies that tighten borders impact people's ability to travel. Travel industry leaders here clearly felt on the defensive at a time when the rise of populist and isolationist sentiment has led to the election of Donald Trump as U.S. president; to his administration's attempts to enact a travel ban and plan to build a wall between Mexico and U.S.; to the Brexit vote in the U.K.; and to the advance of anti-immigration candidate Marine Le Pen to France's election runoff on May 7.
"If the reaction is to ignore them and carry on, it's disastrous," Cameron said of the populists. "We need to understand what's causing populism and correct it."
Sorenson, who at last year's WTTC summit called terrorism the "greatest threat to international travel in recent memory," said that the rise of populism since then is an even greater concern. He agreed the populists' underlying concerns should not be ignored.
"The threats that come from this voice to our industry are as profound today as they've been in the last number of decades," he said. "So how do we respond? We don't respond adequately, in my view, by ignoring those voices. We have to listen to those voices and what they're telling us."
David Scowsill, the outgoing WTTC CEO, expressed concern that "the rights of people to cross borders is challenged on an unprecedented scale."
But he also recognized the forces behind it.
"It is becoming clearer that the economic growth we have enjoyed over the past half-century and the globalization that has driven it is not working for everyone," Scowsill said. "Governments are calling into question some of the basic freedoms of people movement and trade, upon which all our businesses so depend."
Sorenson said that a problem for the industry is that travel and immigration are unfairly linked.
"Clearly, people are broadly concerned about immigration," he said. "That creates another challenge for us: to make sure travel doesn't get rolled into an anti-immigration debate. We're not in the business of immigration; we're in the business of vacation and business travel."
However, in a room full of people whose livelihoods depend on tourism, the right to travel was also asserted.
Despite living in "an age of heightened security concerns, we still believe in the fundamental right of people to cross borders internationally and easily," Scowsill said.
Taleb Rifai, the outgoing secretary general of the United Nations World Tourism Organization (UNWTO), was one of several speakers who directly criticized Trump's policies.
"Security should not mean building walls and banning travel," he said. "We are serving the terrorist agenda. They want us to stop traveling, to be separated, to hate one another. We can't serve their agenda."New tech, new attitudes
Many panelists said it is important for the travel industry to be part of the solution by promoting secure tourism and the ways technology can enable people to travel freely while also protecting countries from the threat of bad actors.
"You have to accept in your industry, that you are going to see greater emphasis on using technology to ensure we inspect people's credentials at borders, making sure we expel illegal overstayers," Cameron said.
Sorenson said that while technology can help differentiate regular travelers from bad actors, ultimately travelers will need to undergo an attitude adjustment.
"We think security can be enhanced while travel can be made easier for the overwhelming majority of travelers who pose no security threat," he said. "That will take data and regular travelers saying, 'I'm prepared to go through some process to get the benefits of easier rules.'"
In addition, Sorenson added, the industry has to recognize that travel policy does impact immigration.
"There are things we can do around overstaying visas, biometrics and the like, to make sure that travel industry data helps nations deal with the immigration issues," he said.
Cameron's final message to the industry was to work with governments, not against them.
"I hope that instead of the tourism industry and governments having a fight and arguing about it, we recognize the need for security and think about the technical solutions, including biometric data, that can help solve the problem," he said.