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World: Tourism 'Summit' Seeks Bright Spots In Dark Times

  • Don Hill

The tourism and travel industry has good reason for wishing it could have taken a vacation this year and last. With war, disease, and an economic turndown, this has been a horrid time for the travel business. But delegates to what they ambitiously call the "Third Global Travel and Tourism Summit," gathered this week in Vilamoura, Portugal, tell RFE/RL correspondent Don Hill that they are preparing for better times.

Prague, 16 May 2003 (RFE/RL) -- The industry that says it generates more than 10 percent of the world's gross domestic product has gathered in the sun-blessed Portuguese resort and port of Vilamoura this week for its third annual "global summit."

This is not, however, an altogether carefree occasion. David Tarsh, an official of the World Travel and Tourism Council, the event's organizers, makes reference to a fearsome biblical passage to describe the state of international tourism.

"I think it's really suffered from the four horsemen of the apocalypse, really, with the economic downturn, with war, with increased visibility of terrorism, and with the, really, media hysteria about SARS," he said.

This is the first major meeting of the industry's leaders since the outbreak in China last year of severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS). A worldwide scare over the flu-like disease effectively dampened a hoped-for post-Iraq-war resurgence of travel demand already weakened by terrorism and limping economies.

Tarsh makes the point that what happens to tourism is more than the concern merely of a few tour companies and hotels and the occasional enterprising taxi driver.

"Travel and tourism accounts for over 10 percent of world GDP and it accounts for nearly $4 billion of GDP, which is very substantial," Tarsh said. "That number will be dipping as a consequence of what we've seen happening in the world this year."

So the people gathered in Vilamoura include cabinet ministers, major airline presidents, and investment bankers. They are not the kind of people who accept adversity without a battle.

Tarsh: "The basic thrust is that consumers want to travel. We have one guy here who's responsible for a large number of travel shows around the world. Even though travel at the moment has been down, he's had 20 percent increases in visitor numbers."

Tarsh says that the conference this year is concentrating on how to rebuild and revitalize the tourism industry. Experience convinces its leaders that people all over the world remain interested in traveling. The challenge for the business is to tap that interest and persuade potential travelers that it is desirable and safe.

"So it's clear that there is a demand there and a strong interest in traveling. So the key for this event is to try to come up with a blueprint for new tourism, to find strategies to help the industry grow, to look at what consumers will really want in terms of the future and how consumers will change, you know, what the characteristics will be of the traveler tomorrow rather than the traveler today," Tarsh said. "And how can the industry then try to reorient itself to meet those needs."

Given the impact of terrorism, war, and troubled economies, people gathered in Vilamoura particularly lament the SARS scare. Tarsh speaks of "media hysteria." Some participants are more vocal, complaining of what they call "overreaction" by the World Health Organization (WHO) in issuing worldwide warnings against travel to SARS hot spots like Hong Kong and Beijing and even, for a time, Toronto. They say that, while the number of cases sounds large, a person anywhere in the world is 240 times more likely to die today of a road accident than a traveler in China is to contract SARS.

The WHO defends its warnings, however. Spokeswoman Christine McNab tells our correspondent that the WHO's actions may be keeping the threat from becoming a catastrophe.

"I think that, when we look at the issue of SARS, we've seen a newly emerging public health threat. We saw how fast it could travel," McNab said. "You know, people who are infected with SARS who got on planes could spread it, did bring it to other countries. SARS, we don't need to see it be long-term -- we don't need to see this disease become endemic. We have an opportunity to not have it become endemic."

When the prophets at this week's travel summit look at China, they see a picture different from that of the public health guardians. They see a potential market looming larger than any threat. One participant acknowledged that China is a developing, not a developed, economy, few of whose nearly 1.3 billion people have the yuan, the Chinese currency, for international travel. But, he said, if only 1 percent of mainland Chinese could be persuaded to vacation abroad, the impact on the travel industry would be immense.

Another bright spot, participants say, are European sun spot destinations like Portugal and Croatia. Prosperous European travelers -- Germans, British, Italians -- seeking nearby locations perceive resorts like Croatia's Dubrovnik and, yes, the travel summit's site of Vilamoura as both secure and enticing. These perceptions, and careful promotion campaigns, have enabled such places to defy the tourism downturn elsewhere in the world.

At the tourism conference, Constantino Jordan, an officer and owner of Vilamoura's Lusotur company, says the point of the meeting is to recognize such opportunities: "At this moment, very [long-distance] traveling is not sought after, because the times have been very insecure and uncertain."

Jordan adds: "What we're here for today is to discuss ways to overcome the situation, which the industry itself is not responsible for, and to discuss ways to motivate people to go back and travel."

The conference convened 15 May and closes tomorrow.