Business World

Wednesday 21 February 2018

UN's tourism boss lays into Trump's Mexican wall plans

A protest against US President Donald Trump’s intention to build a new wall on the Mexican border. Photo: Getty
A protest against US President Donald Trump’s intention to build a new wall on the Mexican border. Photo: Getty
Mark Evans

Mark Evans

US President Donald Trump's plan to build a wall on the US-Mexico border and his administration's recent bans on travel from some Muslim-majority countries have suffered their biggest broadside from a heavy-hitter on the world stage.

Addressing Tianguis Turistico - Mexico's massive tourist trade fair, which attracts 7,000 representatives from almost 90 countries - the Secretary General of the UN World Tourism Organisation delivered a hard-hitting speech not even couched in softly-softly diplomatic language.

Taleb Rifai addressed the packed audience, which included the Mexican president, in the resort town of Acapulco, arguing: "I believe that no wall in the world can isolate Mexico - and any attempt to do so can only isolate themselves too."

In a speech which astonished delegates with its frankness, he added: "The world is looking at you, it respects you. People travel to places they respect - their culture, their society, their people. You want to be with people you enjoy being with, that's why I say the future is Mexico.

"You are on the southern side of the border - it's geography and destiny - but let no one tell you otherwise, you are on the right side of history." And in a direct attack at Trump's policies, he added: "No one on the wrong side of history will ever prevail."

Speaking to the Sunday Independent a day later, Rifai stood by his robust views - also taking aim at recent bans, among others, which curtail the movement of travellers - in line with the United Nation's policy, which he emphasised promotes "safe, secure and seamless travel".

And Rifai, born in Jordan, took issue with the recent orders that are already having an impact on the business travel sectors, as well as leisure industry.

"It's not just safety and security per se," he said. "If you do not connect that with facilitation of travel with open borders and open minds then you end up killing the same industry you're trying to protect. We believe that security on one hand and openness on the other are not a zero-sum game."

The head of one of the United Nation's 15 agencies, he revealed that his sector, which is set to hit revenue of $1.6 trillion by 2020 in the business travel sector alone, has moved on from the old cliches of a Cinderella industry to a global force. Asked by the Sunday Independent whether travel is taken seriously in the corridors of power, he said: "If you asked me this question seven or eight years ago, my answer would have been: 'I don't know, I don't think so'. I remember it was Kofi Annan [who was UN Secretary-General] at the time - then Ban Ki-moon came after that. The heads of these 15 UN agencies meet twice a year and they introduced me to the rest of the group. I could swear I was seeing half a smile on the faces of these people. They were saying, 'Are you serious?' They said, 'What does tourism have to do with our work?'."

But world connectivity is a major arguing point for the UN, he said: "Things have changed a lot since then. Today we speak in front of them and they stop and listen."

On terrorism and geo-political tensions, he added: "The challenges are big but I stand by what I said yesterday - the world has never been better. We have to sit back and think where we came from. We came from a situation where 30 years ago half of this world was ruled by dictators... 20 years ago in the Balkans it was one brother killing another. Forty years ago, no African-American was allowed on the same bus. It's easy to point fingers - but whoever builds that wall is not on the right side of history."

And on Trump's 'America First' campaign slogan, he argued: "What past are we talking about? America has never been greater, when people say make America great again, I say greater than what? I still think America is greater than ever."

And the world tourism boss also wasn't pulling too many punches on last week's Brexit move.

"I have to warn you I'm an optimist - the European Union is the best invention that mankind has ever seen. The world would love to see them together because they would like to be like them."

Sunday Indo Business

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