Last year marked the 75th anniversary of the founding of the United Nations, and as part of the 75th anniversary initiative UN75, United Nations Academic Impact (UNAI) hosted the “75 for UN75: 75 Minutes of Conversation” series of online dialogues with academics, educators, researchers and students around the world, to discuss their priorities for the future, obstacles to achieving them, and the role of global cooperation in managing global issues. On 21 January 2021, UNAI hosted an Arabic language webinar on the theme “Rethinking Tourism” as part of this series.

On 21 January 2021, UNAI hosted a webinar entitled “75 Minutes of Conversation: Rethinking Tourism” to reflect on the importance of tourism to foster peace and protect cultural heritage, interconnections between tourism and global citizenship, how the tourism industry has been impacted by the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic and how it can recover better, the relevance of tourism to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals and what role universities have in promoting and teaching about a more sustainable tourism industry.

Participants shared ideas and best practices to help the tourism sector recover as well as creating a more sustainable industry, and highlighted the adaptive solutions countries are employing to address these issues, with a special focus on the Arab world. Maher Nasser, Director of the Outreach Division of the United Nations Department of Global Communications, introduced the session by referring to the policy briefs issued by the United Nations Secretary-General including the one on transforming tourism, and shared the Secretary-General’s message on the importance of the tourism sector to the global economy and in sustaining cultural heritage.  

Ms. Basmah Al-Mayman, Regional Director for the Middle East at the United Nations World Tourism Organization (UNWTO), and former manager of the International Organizations and Committees Department at the Saudi Commission for Tourism and Antiquities, said that a “rebound in international tourism is expected by the third quarter of this year and a potential return to pre-pandemic 2019 levels not before 2023.”  She added that UNWTO is working on several mechanisms to design and promote recommendations to revive tourism, developed with the context and realities of each country in mind.

Ms. Al-Mayman mentioned that in the Middle East and North Africa region, some countries are promoting domestic tourism given the lack of global travel. She also explained that some countries are offering travel vouchers that can be redeemed in the future while in others fees are being reduced or suspended altogether such as those related to the Hajj, the annual Islamic pilgrimage to Mecca, Saudi Arabia. Despite these efforts, the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on tourism can be felt at all levels in many countries, noted Dr. Suleiman A. D. Farajat, Chief Commissioner of the Petra Development and Tourism Region Authority (Jordan) and former professor of tourism at the University of Jordan.

Dr. Farajat noted the high unemployment in the Jordanian tourism sector as a direct consequence of the pandemic and the reduction in international arrivals in a country where tourism accounts for 20 per cent of the gross domestic product. “We have to aim at creating other sources of income seeing that the heavy reliance on tourism has proved to be challenging,” he warned.

Dr. Ghada Mohamed Wafik Abu Bak, Vice Dean for Education and Students Affairs of the Faculty of Tourism and Hotels at Fayoum University (Egypt), stressed that sustainable tourism is a key factor for achieving the Sustainable Development Goals and that it is and should be the “lifeline for rebuilding the tourism sector.”  Dr. Ghada also highlighted the role of academia in promoting the concept of sustainable tourism among students, advancing research projects related to it, and promoting sustainability among local communities.

Dr. Noureddine Selmi, Associate Professor of Marketing and Tourism at the HEC Carthage Business School (Tunisia) and former Deputy Minister of Higher Education and Scientific Research of Tunisia, also emphasized the importance of higher education, noting that universities and colleges are critical given the relevance of foresight and oversight in dealing with any crisis, such as the one the tourism sector is currently experiencing. According to Dr. Selmi, this should entail monitoring, predicting and finding solutions and alternatives, while stressing the need to reaffirm the importance of Goal 17 within the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, “in light of the momentum that partnerships have.”  

Prof. Salwa Mikdadi, Researcher of the Arab Center for the Study of Art at New York University Abu Dhabi (United Arab Emirates), noted the growing interest in domestic tourism and that the use of technology in the tourism sector has grown as a result of the pandemic.  For example, the Louvre Museum in Abu Dhabi now offers virtual views of its exhibits, extending their potential reach globally and beyond in person visitors. Ms. Sophia Smith-Galer, a journalist with the BBC and winner of the Many Languages, One World (MLOW) International Essay Contest in Arabic, agreed with this assessment and stressed that there were many lessons to be taken from the pandemic regarding tourism, including the use of technology and social media platforms to offer cultural experiences and for intercultural exchange. 

Dr. Hafidh Al-Riyami, Assistant Professor at the College of Applied Sciences – Nizwa (Oman), talked about the strategy for tourism development in Oman, which aims to increase the tourism sector’s contribution to the country’s GDP. He also spoke about his own experience as a tour guide and how tourism helps to combat stereotypes about Muslims and Arabs. “Tourism can indeed bring people much closer to each other while encouraging respect among cultures and fostering dialogue,” Dr. Al-Riyami said.

The final panelist, Mr. Jason Pierce, editorial assistant with UN Chronicle magazine and a student of Arabic, talked about the strong connection between learning languages and tourism and noted that since the start of the pandemic, millions of people have started learning a new language through various platforms. Mr. Pierce concluded by asking how the tourism sector can leverage the new global interest in learning languages to advance recovery and increase intercultural dialogue. 

During the Q&A segment, attendees asked questions about the measures and procedures that need to be followed to rebuild domestic tourism to compensate for the emerging gap in international tourism, as well as what the tourism industry will look like post-COVID as some of the changes we have seen will clearly be with us for some time.

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