WTO head Natalia Bayona: ‘Tourism must be regulated taking citizens into account’

Natalia Bayona (Bucaramanga, Colombia) is an expert in the tourism sector. Since last year, she is also the executive director of the World Tourism Organization (UNWTO), headquartered in Madrid, Spain. Her first year in office has been marked by the extraordinary post-pandemic recovery of tourism, with a record 85 million foreign visitors in Spain and global travel on the verge of reaching pre-2019 levels.

Bayona, interviewed in her office, highlights the relevance of training in the sector, and believes that creating regulation around the limits of tourism that is attuned to the local citizens’ needs is crucial.

Question. What would you highlight about last year’s evolution in the sector?

Answer. Worldwide, we have reached 88% of the recovery, compared to 2019, with 1.3 billion tourists in 2023. In addition, revenue has risen to $1.4 trillion, which represents a recovery of 93%. And there is something important: the indicator that never decreased during these years was investment in technology, with $2 billion invested in startups. Innovation is the main vehicle for the development of tourism. By region, Europe concentrates 54% of international tourism, with a recovery of 94%. Spain has had record growth. And other countries stand out, such as Albania, with a growth of 53%, Andorra with 31%, Iceland with 15%… which is great, because they are emerging markets. On one hand, we have spectacular dynamism in Spain as a global tourism leader and, on the other, we have emerging markets also growing in Europe, the Americas, Africa…

Q. What are the challenges for 2024?

A. One of the great challenges is education. Tourism is the biggest employer of young people all around the world, but 50% of those young people who work in tourism only have secondary education. Only 25% in the case of OECD countries. And this is related to a second challenge: improving the wage base and the working conditions.

Q. Tourism is seen as an unattractive sector, with a lot of temporary work.

A. For many young people, working in companies related to tourism, as waiters or tour guides, is a way to complement their studies. We must work so that tourism is seen as a stable job, a sector in which to stay, not something temporary to make the leap to another sector that pays better. That is why it’s important that tourism be introduced into secondary and university education, as is already being done in some countries. In tourism, you not only need leadership and communication skills; you also have to know about economics, law… but since people are unaware of this from secondary education, it is difficult for them to associate tourism with an economic career. Sometimes people think that one studies tourism to become a waiter.

Q. In Spain, high-budget tourism is promoted.

A. Raising the quality of the facilities, paired with better salaries etc, is positive. But it is also true that there has to be something for everyone; not everyone can go to a hotel. One of the beautiful things about tourism is that it democratizes. People who can’t go to a five-star hotel can go to a good hotel.

Q. Are there examples of innovation?

A. One of them is the use of virtual reality and augmented reality, which serve, for example, for the traveler to see what the experience of visiting a museum is going to be like. Also artificial intelligence, which is perhaps the most important, as it serves to predict the carrying capacity of a destination. Using visitor data from recent years, the model predicts the times of highest crowding and helps take measures to avoid it. And, thirdly, big data analysis allows us to know the customer very well and personalize the offer.

Q. With the recovery of tourism, some destinations have become overcrowded again. Is it possible to set limits?

A. Tourism can be organized. It’s very easy: it has to be regulated collectively. Tourism must be regulated taking citizens into account. You have to work with them, they are the ones most benefitted — or affected; also with hotel owners, travel agencies, the police… for instance, Ibiza could look for a way to diversify and become, more than just a party destination, also a nature destination. And that has to be agreed upon first. You have to decide what the carrying capacity of a destination is and regulate it. Bhutan, for example, has decided that it only wants a few tourists a year. You also have to decide if you opt for high-spending tourism, what hours you want to set for the shops and entertainment venues, what the conditions should be for people to go to the beach, what types of services can be provided to guarantee that there is trust, that there is security at the destination. Secondly, tourists must be educated; they have to be aware that they must treat the destinations they go to as if it was their own home. Tourism must be taken seriously. It must be treated as a state matter. The Spanish government, for example, has invested heavily in this [type of] tourism, and Spain exports its model to many countries.

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