We need to stand up for freedom to travel

Written by Olivia Ruggles-Brise, Policy and Communications Director, WTTC

As a British Citizen and child of the European Union, freedom to travel is part of who I am. I have a passport that currently allows me visa-free entry into 175 countries, and, for the time being at least, the opportunity to work and live across the 28 countries of the EU. My student days coincided with the advent of Low Cost Carriers and, with the opening up of global aviation markets, long-haul travel was pretty affordable too. I work in international travel, have lived in three continents, visited five and the patchwork of my life is made up of the experiences, friends, cultures, and landscapes that I have encountered along the way. The world, as the saying goes, has always been my oyster. And until recently, I never questioned that my children would enjoy this same freedom.

For while President Trump’s ‘travel ban’ has undoubtedly caused the greatest storm, it is only the tip of the iceberg. There is a deep-rooted and longer term trend that is leading to the progressive disappearance of an open and tolerant world and chipping away at our freedom to travel.

Despite being wealthier and healthier than ever, the future for many in Europe and North America seems bleak. Despite macro data looking positive, the story underneath is often a different one. Take for example the US unemployment rate — on the surface, at 5% it is good, but it hides the fact that one in six American men is out of work.

The combined forces of an ageing population, the disruptive effects of technology, and over-indebtedness mean that there are more old people to look after, fewer jobs to be had, and less money in state coffers to support social and welfare systems. The system is not working and people are not happy. The World Economic Forum’s Global Risks Report 2016 gives a good roundup of the issues.

And when politicians come along with the promise of making things better, they listen.

And when those same politicians blame a global system out of control, run by border-less elites, and mass migration driving international terrorism the solution seems simple. Put up barriers — keep the good in and the bad out.

As is so often the case, tourism gets caught up in the unintended consequences. It is an activity that depends on the ability of people to move from one place to another (and then go home again), and one that is stimulated by international trade flows. Measures to increase security, prevent immigration, and ensure protectionism against trade competitors have a direct impact on tourism.

And we are seeing these impacts aplenty.

For the past 18 months world trade volumes have flat-lined due to under-the-radar measures that favour national interests over global volumes. For Travel & Tourism and the valuable export earnings it brings, anti-immigration rhetoric is fast turning into real measures, from the temporary reinstatement of borders within the Schengen area, to the proposed wall between the USA and Mexico, and the stalling of visa code reforms within the European Union. And the recent US travel ban was, of course, instituted in the name of security.

Stifling tourism is counter-productive because of course it can itself help solve some of the underlying economic problems. It is a sector that brings in foreign money, creates jobs locally (hard to replace tourism jobs with robots, hard to outsource that natural beauty spot), and can drive local supply chains (agriculture, laundry services, guides, excursions, handicrafts…etc).

But perhaps more importantly, it is an activity that enables and encourages the free circulation of ideas and different social norms, which broadens horizons and opens minds and ultimately helps make our world a better and more peaceful place to be.

I do not foresee a time when blanket travel bans are the norm. But slowly our world is becoming less open and less tolerant, and within that context, Freedom to Travel becomes something we cannot take for granted. It is up to us all to cherish and protect it.

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