The Battle of the UNSDGs: PATA/UNWTO Leaders Debate 2019

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PATA Annual Summit 2019 took place in Cebu, Philippines in May and one of its highlights was the PATA/UNWTO Leaders Debate.

An annual event to stimulate discussion around the key issues in tourism development, the debate pitched two teams against each other on the topic of: The Most Important Goal of the 17 UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) for tourism development and was moderated by Rico Hizon, BBC World News Presenter.

From a practical perspective, the arguments presented offered plenty of food for thought for key decision makers who are tasked to making budget allocation for tourism development. The essence of the debate boils down to: should you invest in infrastructure or people for tourism development?

L/R: Abdulla Ghiyas, PATA Face of the Future 2018; Datuk Musa Hj. Yusof, Director General of Tourism Malaysia; Rico Hizon, BBC World News Presenter; Josefa Tuamoto, CEO of Tourism Solomons; Flori-Anne Dela Cruz, PATA Face of the Future 2019

Flori-Anne Dela Cruz, Board Director at Guam Visitors Bureau and PATA Face of the Future 2019 was paired with Mr. Josefa Tuamoto, CEO of Tourism Solomons, as they debated SDG #8 – Decent Work and Economic Growth as the most important goal.

Predecessor Abdulla Ghiyas, PATA Face of the Future 2018 and President of the Maldives Association of Travel Agents & Tour Operators (MATATO), along with teammate, Datuk Musa Hj. Yusof, Director General of Tourism Malaysia, formed the reasoning for SDG #9 – Industry, Innovation, and Infrastructure as the most important goal.


The Argument for SDG #9 – Industry, Innovation, and Infrastructure

The Yusof-Ghiyas Team found this SDG to be most in line with the mandates of responsible tourism development to allow destinations the ability to attract and accommodate visitors in the long-run. They referenced their destinations as case studies where industry, innovation, and infrastructure were the catalyst for tourism. As a result, it would be up to the public sector to influence the industry, such as through sustainable resource usage and waste management, in order to appeal to tourists and investors.

The Yusof-Ghiyas Team posed arguments for SDG #9 as the most important goal

For example, many people in the 1970s believed that Maldives did not have the potential for tourism. However, the construction of bigger airports and new facilities began attracting a high volume of visitors, which led to the immense growth in the economy, particularly that of construction and tourism.

Similarly, Langkawi in the 1960s was a sleepy Malaysian town. When more infrastructure were built to support the local people – primarily fishermen, this led to an unintended boom in tourism, which the government then leveraged to develop the region as the popular destination it is today.

Planned developments – especially ones with innovative tools to anticipate long-term needs – can sustain more visitors and their activities while putting less strain on resources. By doing so, destinations can maximise their limited resources while simultaneously supporting the growth of other industries. This is exemplified in the world’s first solar-powered resort in Maldives, marine restoration through 3D printed coral reefs, and reclaimed drinking water from the ocean (and even toilets!). As a result, there is no growth if there is no investment.

Abdulla Ghiyas, PATA Face of the Future 2018

To their points, moderator Rico posed these thought-provoking questions:

Is the solution for economic growth just to build infrastructure everywhere? If there are no hotels at a desired destination, wouldn’t tourists just look for other options, such as staying on the beach? What if tourism turns out to be a white elephant and there is not enough of a good thing? How do we know what to invest in without losing our investments? Do increased investments necessarily create more jobs or benefit the communities?


The Argument for SDG #8 – Decent Work and Economic Growth

Meanwhile, the Tuamoto-Dela Cruz Team prefaced their position with their own unique experience as small nations in the Pacific.

Despite lagging behind in resources and infrastructure, tourism in the Pacific region has continued to flourish. Local people have been able to capitalise on their skills, heritage, and culture through human innovations, thus showing that infrastructure investments may not even be necessary for tourism to take place.

The Tuamoto-Dela Cruz Team posed arguments for SDG #8 as the most important goal

Destinations that lack resources cannot justify development until there is guarantee that their investments will continue to provide returns in the long-run.

Communities can be creative in repurposing existing facilities (such as offering homestay accommodations), while investing in people will sustain jobs and thus the economy. However, investments into structures and innovations can disappear if they are no longer useful.

This is not to say that infrastructures are not needed at all, but developments should just be prioritised on people first. Why? Nevermind having decent jobs, some people don’t even have jobs. As a result, economic growth must first come from the people and the results will determine whether it is feasible to invest into the industry. Because jobs are the reason for development to take place, SDG #8 is therefore the most important Sustainable Development Goal.

Flori-Anne Dela Cruz, PATA Face of the Future 2019

A question from the audience prompted thought about the time-consuming process of sustainable development as juxtaposed with faster economic growth. Moderator Rico posed the question of whether visitors would be able to access – or even know about – areas underserved by infrastructure. Although the topic of focus is on tourism, there are many other industries, such as construction and technology, that benefit from supporting its development. As a result, investing in tourism can also mean investing into other areas of the economy.

While each team continued to believe that their SDG was most important, they agreed that the two goals are so closely interlinked that both are needed for tourism to succeed and therefore both are important. To further reinforce this, votes from the audience were evenly split between the two teams, leaving both as winners.

Both teams valiantly defended their positions for their SDG as the most important tourism goal

The takeaway from this debate was not that there should be a Sustainable Development Goal prioritised over the other; opinions from the audience and the entirety of the debate demonstrated this. The greater message was that all tourism stakeholders should be familiar with the goals because they collectively exist to guide responsible development. From this capstone session of the PATA Annual Summit, delegates got to see the demonstration of SDGs as interpreted by the two teams and came out more enlightened in the process.



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