Gathering more than 900 delegates from 120 countries, including over 70 Ministers and Secretaries of State for Tourism, the 21st Session of the UNWTO General Assembly opened in Medellín, Colombia, in the presence of President Juan Manuel Santos (14 September 2015).
In his opening speech, President Santos emphasized Colombia’s vast tourism offer and the country’s commitment to share it with the world in a sustainable manner: “We give tremendous importance to tourism in our development plans and in our economy. The participants gathered here today know more than anyone how tourism can boost countries and be an agent of social transformation. In Colombia, so much so, that tourism now is our second largest source of foreign exchange, surpassed only by oil. Indeed, with falling prices on oil and coal, we are looking to replace the income from these smokestack industries with more environmentally friendly ones, such as tourism”.
United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, who greeted the participants in a video message, welcomed the Assembly theme – ‘fostering inclusive development and social transformation’ – and stressed that “As one of the largest and fastest growing sectors of the world economy, tourism makes vital contributions to employment generation, poverty reduction, women´s empowerment, environmental preservation and peace building “ and said that looking ahead he will count on the sector’s full involvement “in achieving the Sustainable Development Goals which include, for the first time ever, targets related to sustainable tourism”.
UNWTO Secretary-General, Taleb Rifai, praised Colombia’s commitment to tourism as well as the country’s remarkable transformation into one of the America´s fastest growing tourism destinations, Mr. Rifai underscored how tourism, alongside it’s economic weight, also has the power to generate significant social benefits: “Only those that understand the connection between tourism and peace can appreciate the real value of travel and tourism”, said Mr. Rifai.
Olumuyiwa Benard Aliu, President of the Council of the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) highlighted the close relationship between tourism and air transport: “In 2014, some 53% of tourists travel by air to reach their international destinations. We must recognize the important fact that divergent policies for air transport and tourism ultimately hinder economic development”.
Walter Mzembi, Minister of Tourism and Hospitality of Zimbabwe and co-chair of the 20th UNWTO General Assembly, called upon the Assembly to “emerge from Medellín with a greater resolve on how to protect our sector from all forms of threats and confirm it as a diplomatic bridge that connects people to people”.