ABU DHABI, United Arab Emirates — Most of the stage time during the opening day of the 2013 World Travel & Tourism Council Global Summit was handed over to industry outsiders: an Oxford professor, an economist from the Boston Consulting Group, an environmental activist, a soft drink marketer and a former president of the United States.
By design, the program was intended to provide the 1,000 industry attendees, including government ministers and the CEOs of some of the largest travel companies in the world, a glimpse at what experts believe the world will look like in the future.
While there was not total agreement among the speakers, the picture that emerged was one of surprising technological developments that will have us living longer and computing faster, economic and population growth that is likely to be uneven geographically, and a hyper-connected world that carries significant risk as well as opportunities.
Some speakers leaned significantly toward optimism, others listed into pessimism. One perspective on uncertainty was offered in a keynote speech by ex-president Bill Clinton who observed, “It’s not overly complicated. There are very few permanent victories, very few permanent defeats. The important thing is to keep stumbling in the right direction.”
For Oxford professor Ian Goldin, who studies future issues, each new technological doorway opened for progress can also be exploited by “the bad,” and future success depends upon systems having “resilience,” i.e., protocols that can quickly identify and contain everything from cyber attacks to biological viruses.
He also expressed concern that well-established governments were so preoccupied with their own economic issues that no one was paying attention to the very real, large-scale issues that have arisen due to globalization and technological advance. And emerging nations, he said, aren’t ready to do so yet. To create the necessary system resilience, “these issues need to be thought through” globally, and “no one’s focused.”
In his opening remarks, WTTC CEO David Scowsill did paint a rosy picture of expected industry growth, fueled in large measure by the expanding economic power of China. Goldin backed him up: Based on recent consultation with Chinese leaders, Goldin forecast that Chinese GDP will rise 7% for at least 15 years – a number he called conservative, even though it exceeded the accepted wisdom of 6.5%.
Even so, Scowsill, cognoscente of the potential for problems, prescribed that industry leaders focus on “serving people, planet and profit.”
It may be no coincidence that “profit” was mentioned last. Recent global travel and tourism performance shows the industry expanding faster than the general global economy. It seemed to be taken for granted by many speakers that travel and tourism will become the largest industry in the world in the not-distant future.
Daniel Stelter, an economist with the Boston Consulting Group had the most pessimistic outlook, expressing belief that the U.S. will pull its economy out of the doldrums but that Europe is “stuck in red” for the foreseeable future.
Jonathan Porritt of the Forum for the Future had first consulted on environmental issues to WTTC in 1994 and said that at that time, he found chronic “lack of awareness, indifference and hostility” to environmental concerns.
While he is now embraced by the organization, he said the industry must “decouple from becoming the [perceived] world’s biggest destroyer of nature.”
Just as economic issues must be dealt with on a global basis when crises hit, so must environmental issues, Porritt added. “I hate to be the bearer of bad news,” he said, “but this planet has finite resources.”
He also presented a call to action on climate change, calling 2012 “ the worst year ever” in terms of acceleration. As a result, for the travel industry in particular, “value is at risk.” But on the other hand, Porritt said, “no other industry is capable of doing so much good as travel and tourism.”
Coke’s global chief customer officer, Sandy Douglas, speaking about consumers, cautioned that “the individual has more power than ever,” thanks in large measure to social media. “It’s the consumer’s world, and we just work here.”
“Once, we controlled the product, method and means of communication,” he added. “But now, they own the conversation, and on good days, we’re part of it. They own our brands.”
Travelport CEO Gordon Wilson and Marriott CEO Arne Sorenson were called on stage to react to the non-industry speakers.
The industry and consumers alike, Wilson said, will have to get over the “misapprehension that [social and environmental] responsibility is more uncomfortable or more expensive.”
Sorenson said he felt the previous speakers “nailed it.” Pressure on the environment and the ability for people to exercise power “will create chaos,” but he also expressed confidence in the industry’s ability to evolve and cope with change.
Clinton spoke of his belief in tourism’s power to transform countries, especially ones emerging from crises. He said he saw it happen in the former Yugoslavia, and is working with his Clinton Foundation to make it so in Haiti. “What you do for a living is good for the earth,” he told industry leaders.
He said that he brought up the benefits of tourism to Israelis and Palestinians during peace negotiations, describing it as “a peace benefit.”
Like Goldin, Clinton warned that greater connectivity and interdependence can have two opposing outcomes. “It leads to either conflict or cooperation,” Clinton said, noting that cooperation is what makes people successful. “I’m betting that cooperators win out.”
As a result of advances in technology, shifts in economic power and regional uncertainties, “We are in a world that is becoming,” he said. If we focus on our differences rather than similarities, on conflict over cooperation, “things will go badly.”
“It’s a huge deal,” he said.
Follow Arnie Weissmann on Twitter @awtravelweekly.