Policy makers attend Siem Reap event

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BANGKOK, 10 February 2015: Tourism and culture need to learn how to work hand-in-hand and build a sustainable model that allows both to prosper, but it will take more than just a conference to ensure the two have the same objectives.

Despite the high profile gathering in Siem Reap, the divide  between tourism and culture is vast. Those who are dedicated to cultural preservation view tourism as  business endeavour that exploits rather than supports culture.

That and many other challenges faced delegates attending the first UNWTO/UNESCO World Conference on Tourism and Culture, last week, but despite the discussions and good intentions the event closed with few if any concrete conclusions.

Over 900 participants, including over 45 ministers and vice ministers of tourism and culture, international experts, speakers and guests from 100 countries, gathered at the event in Siem Reap, Cambodia.

They were there to explore and advance new partnership models between tourism and culture, but for many of the delegates this was just another meeting in a year packed with back-to-back events. Ministers will have very little time to follow-up on recommendations before they are globetrotting to the next international meeting.

inside no 6In the official closing press statement the organisers noted: “Tourism, moves more than 1 billion people across international borders each year, offers immense possibilities for socio-economic development in destinations around the world.”

“Cultural tourism has proven to increase competitiveness, create employment opportunities, curb rural migration, generate income for investment in preservation, and nurture a sense of pride and self-esteem among host communities.”

There is also considerable movement of ministers and hangers-on who have honed their skills at attending back-to-back events. These all-expenses paid trips rake up enormous carbon footprints for  delegates, many of whom talk about finding a sustainable model for tourism. Staying home, or using webcasts to chat over the issues, would have been one solution for an event that should be judged as yet another talk fest.

Unfortunately, creating business models that offer safeguards for culture in the face of an unstoppable tourism boom across Asia are proving to be elusive. Tourism is driven by people who look for profit and a return on investment. Airlines and hotels are not in this business to curtail capacity.

Delegates admitted they needed to create a new framework for collaboration between tourism and culture, which includes active participation of host communities, visitors, the public and the private sector, but what is the reality behind the slogans and overused phrases?  Most of us hardly understand what the ministers are talking about when they recite  jargon. How many times do you need to use the word sustainable and strategic in a sentence to make us all fall asleep?

“We need cross cutting policies to promote the sustainable development of cultural tourism,” said Samdech Akka Moha Sena Padei Techo Hun Sen, Prime Minister of the Kingdom of Cambodia.

“This Conference represents an important contribution to advance the future Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) through the link between tourism and culture,” he added.

inside no 6.1“Carefully managed, tourism can protect and enliven this heritage, generate new opportunities for local communities, and foster tolerance and respect between peoples and nations,” said UNWTO Secretary-General Taleb Rifai. “It is up to us to work together to harness the sheer force of 1 billion tourists, turning it into one billion opportunities to contribute to inclusive economic growth, social development and advancement of the post-2015 sustainability agenda around the world.”

“Every tourist must be a custodian of world heritage, an ambassador of intercultural dialogue. This is why safeguarding cultural heritage must move forward with sustainable tourism,” said Irina Bokova, UNESCO Director-General, in her message to the conference.

Conclusions were not forthcoming. It will take another meeting of ministers. A peep  at a minister of tourism’s calendar would prompt the query, ‘when do they find time to actually turn talk to action?’

They don’t. They are off to the next meeting right now.