Tourism is a Tool for Tolerance, And We Need More Of That
Peter De Wilde
President, European Travel Commission
In the tourism business, we deliver personal benefit with social impact. We facilitate the movement of hundreds of millions of people around the globe every year. Although there are many reasons for these journeys, each of them results in experiences of new places and new people. And that is a good thing.
As former US President John F. Kennedy put it, “travel has become one of the great forces for peace and understanding in our time. As people move throughout the world and learn to know each other’s customs and to appreciate the qualities of individuals of each nation, we are building a level of international understanding which can sharply improve the atmosphere for world peace.”
Tourism fosters cross-cultural interaction. When organized in a sustainable way and in harmony with the interests of local communities, it reduces prejudice and promotes goodwill. It builds tolerance and understanding.
Recent events indicate that some countries are becoming more inward looking. The United Kingdom’s vote to leave the European Union is a notable example of this, alongside the rise of protectionist rhetoric elsewhere. We therefore need tourism to grow now more than ever.
Terrorism activity in continental Europe has led policy-makers to focus on enhanced security measures at the expense of freedom to travel. And proposals to further liberalize travel within the Schengen Area have been put on ice. But this is the wrong choice for governments to make. In view of the above, you might even call it a short-sighted and therefore immoral choice.
While our citizens’ security must be preeminent, maintaining or growing barriers to visitation actually increases the risk over the long term. It may address the symptom but it does nothing to provide a cure. We would benefit instead from greater openness.
Travel Barriers Impact Competitiveness
The UNWTO tells us that the share of tourists requiring a visa prior to travelling continues to decline and is at its lowest level ever. In 2016, 42% of the world population could travel without obtaining a traditional visa prior to departure, compared to only 23% in 2008.
While progress is being made, the vast majority of international travellers still require a visa before being able to travel. And although there is growth in the number who held an e-visa or who obtained a visa on arrival, only one-in-five global travellers needed no visa at all to reach their destination last year. That is the same proportion that it was in 1980.
European and North American nations have some of the world’s most restrictive visa regimes. By doing so, they are choosing to put in place barriers that reduce their competitiveness and limit tourism growth.
I believe that visa liberalization should be viewed as a tool for greater competitiveness rather than a barrier to growth. Nations can employ a variety of tools to boost their competitiveness such as improving the nature and longevity of whatever visas are issued, and reducing the administrative burden in applying for them.
Yet the single most impactful action that nations can take is to grow the number of countries with whom they have visa waiver agreements in order to reduce the number of tourists requiring any type of visa.
The Economic and Social Prize
Improving Europe’s competitiveness through visa liberalization would see the Continent grow its share of global tourism. In addition to the sociological bonus, there is a large economic prize on offer.
Research demonstrates that up to 84 million additional arrivals could be attracted to Europe over the next five years.1 These visitors would spend up to €114 billion in our economies and help to generate an additional 615,000 jobs.
Economic growth at home can help generate economic opportunity, social cohesion and pride. It is something that governments should enthusiastically embrace. However let us remember that tourism is, first and foremost, a personal and social experience. The social benefit may be harder to quantify but it is nevertheless very real.
Now is a time when we need to build increased tolerance and understanding between people. Let us not respond to crises by increasing barriers to travel. Let us look instead to further stimulating travel and cultural exchange.
I encourage all nations to proactively commit to a programme of visa liberalization and I encourage you to reflect on the part that you can play in delivering on this ambition.