When The World Reaches Out
Two hundred and fifty CEOs, fifty-two ministers of tourism, three hundred travel journalists, and nearly three thousand professionals have gathered to redefine tourism in the post-pandemic era, selecting a rather controversial venue for the occasion. The annual World Travel and Tourism Council (WTTC) Global Summit has also attracted movie stars like Edward Norton, prominent international TV anchors and a spattering of supermodels, some of whom no doubt shared my unease flying into Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. With its torrid reputation for human rights and on-going diplomatic spat with Canada, friends and family were genuinely concerned for my well-being. Despite the kingdom’s attempt to reinvent itself as a tourism mecca guided by the vision of its millennial Crown Prince, travel advisories cautioned me to log out of social media apps, avoid government buildings, and adhere to strict local customs. My wife also advised me to please keep my mouth shut, knowing full well I have an inherent incapacity to do so. Supplied with a new Saudi tourist visa and with an invitation for the conference, I had no idea what to expect.
I didn’t need pyro-drones topping off a multi-million-dollar fireworks show to witness Saudi Arabia’s eye-boggling investment in tourism. It was immediately evident pulling up to Riyadh’s palatial Ritz Carlton Hotel and Conference Centre. The production values of the WTTC event were staggering, along with impressive showcases for Saudi Arabia’s four high-profile giga-projects – developments that aspire to create entire cities out of thin air. The CEOs of Marriott, Hilton, Carnival, Accor, Hertz and Hyatt were on stage, along with dignitaries from Portugal, Austria, South Africa, Costa Rica, the USA, the UK and Australia. CNN’s combative host Richard Quest grilled them about how the tourism industry intends to pay more than just lip service to sustainability, a major theme throughout the two-day conference. With great fanfare, the WTTC released the first-ever report to measure tourism’s impact on global carbon emissions. The conclusion is that airfare, hotels, cruises and the like account for 8.1%, less than the previously estimated 11%. Reporters questioning the report’s methodology were reassured that the numbers would be scrutinized by governments and NGOs around the world. After the scourge of over-tourism and the challenges Covid, a revitalized industry is taking responsibility seriously.
Buzz words and catchphrases flowed thick and fast: community engagement, greenwashing, decarbonization, revenge tourism, zero gravity urbanism, follow the data with next generation artificial intelligence. “We are not in the service industry, we are in the care industry,” said Hyatt Hotels CEO Mark Hoplamazian. Above all, there was a lot of overall optimism. Despite a labour crisis, inflation, China’s iffy recovery and the tragic war in Ukraine, global tourism’s pandemic recovery has been faster and fiercer than anyone expected (Destination Canada revised and shortened its own tourism recovery projections too). Demand is quite simply outstripping supply, bringing with it opportunities and issues. Former UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon voiced his frustration that government climate initiatives were lagging, supermodels Elle McPherson and Adriana Lima launched new Awards for Sustainability, the WTTC released various economic reports, and multiple newsworthy deals and announcements were made. Corporate tourism is a massive industry so I won’t bore you with the details, but it was hard to ignore the rather large elephant in the room. An elephant called Saudi Arabia.
“I want women in Canada to know that our lives here are not what they think our lives are,” explained Alhanouf Aldrees, a cultural manager at Riyadh’s spectacularly restored Diriyah UNESCO World Heritage Site. I’d made a point to engage with as many Saudis as I could, asking thorny questions so I could hear their side of the story. What they shared left me in little doubt that the country is experiencing neck-bracing social change, reminding me of how quickly everything transformed when I lived through the fall of Apartheid. Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman (popularly known as MBS) is smashing traditions with an iron fist, breaking both glass ceilings - and political opponents - in his goal to modernize and restore his kingdom after decades of conservative religious isolation. Supported by Ivy League-educated staff and enjoying widespread domestic support from a youthful population, MBS wants to spearhead a new global economic landscape.
You’ve likely heard about the plight of Saudi women, the persecution and murder of Saudi opposition (including a prominent US-based Saudi journalist in grisly fashion), the brutal proxy war in Yemen, mass beheadings of local activists, and the infamous 2017 Royal purge that took place in the same Ritz Carlton hosting the WTTC event. You probably have not heard about the legal reforms assuring Saudi women of their independent right to drive, work, remove their abaya, marry, divorce and travel. We don’t hear how hardline religious authorities have been stripped of their influence and power, or that MBS has denounced the hardcore Wahhabism that Saudi Arabia has traditionally used to promote Islamic extremism. We certainly don’t hear much about Saudi Arabia’s striking skyscrapers and sprawling neon malls, busy late-night highway traffic and massive shopping palaces. The news doesn’t cover MDL Beast Soundstorm, an annual desert concert that attracts more than two hundred thousand people from around the globe (this year headlined by Bruno Mars, Post Malone and a dozen electronica superstars). Did you know that this year’s Red Sea Film Festival in Jeddah screened LGBTQ+ movies, celebrated women in cinema, hosted a conversation with Spike Lee, promoted movies that challenged Islamic practices, and claimed zero censorship? Cinemas were unbanned just five years ago, and yes, homosexuality is still illegal.
I’m struggling with the contradictions too, but before you fire up your outrage, consider speaking to the people who live here. Tourism has always transcended politics and media.
“If Saudi Arabia reaches out,” WTTC CEO Julia Simpson tells me, “our job in tourism is to reach back.” This is why WTTC members are investing around US$10.5 billion into the country, opening major hotels, resorts, air routes, cruise terminals and dozens of commercial developments. Princess Haifa Al Saud, the kingdom’s impressive Vice Minister of Tourism, says that one hundred thousand Saudis are being trained in hospitality to work in fully sustainable resorts. It is Dubai all over again, employing the latest technology, and doubling down on ambition.
The four giga-projects are too mind-boggling to get into too much detail. A 170 km-long, 500m-high, 200m-wide mirrored skyscraper city for nine million people? Watch the promo video for The Line and I dare you not to gasp. There are massive tourism developments on the Red Sea, in Riyadh, and in the rocky desert of AlUla. Neom’s Ewok-fashioned ski resort, Trojena, looks like something out of a science fiction movie, and all of it boasts “next generation AI” so as to be “fully sustainable” with “cutting-edge design” from “the world’s leading architects.” If you build it, they will come, and the Saudis are building big, spending an estimated US$1 trillion to build a global tourism economy, and increase its non-oil GDP from 16% to 50% within a decade.
The world’s largest desalination plants water the desert, and the world’s largest airport (under construction) hopes to welcome 100 million visitors by 2030 - all paid for by the world’s second-largest oil reserves. And here lies the elephant in the room. Pumping millions of barrels of oil to pay for sustainable mega-projects, admirable as they may be, does little to mitigate global climate change. Climate scientists are imploring nations to keep the carbon in the ground, including Canada, which has the world’s third largest oil reserves. I cannot help but wonder if Saudi Arabia’s jaw-dropping showcase developments – built by migrant workers in the scorching desert heat – might end up serving the mega-rich as escape pods for climate disaster. At Riyadh’s wild exhibition for The Line, I ask a proud guide who will clean the dishes, or pick up the garbage. “There will be no blue-collar workers here,” he replies. What about crime? “There will be no crime in The Line.” Next generation AI and robots will take care of all of it. Stop me if you’ve heard that one before. The line between utopia and dystopia feels very thin indeed.
“Travel is all about faces, not places,” says my cheerful Riyadh guide Ali, and he’s right. Plenty of mega-developments across the Middle East look to redefine the region in a post-oil future, but it’s the Saudis themselves who offer something truly unique. Their warm hospitality is genuine and delightful. I experience “welcome welcome!” everywhere, accompanied by smiles, handshakes, curious questions, and gratitude for visiting. I relish the fragrant, blonde Saudi coffee served with sweet dates at every entrance, enjoying the smell of exotic spice in the desert breeze. Locals insisted on buying me a $20 mocktail at a Jareed Hotel bar, although bar is the wrong word. Alcohol remains strictly illegal in the kingdom, a major hurdle if the kingdom hopes to attract legions of international holidaymakers. One step at a time.
I end up speaking to almost a dozen local women in Riyadh and the coastal city of Jeddah, admittedly a small sample size, but I have drawn conclusions from fewer interactions before. These women were highly educated (tertiary education is free) and well-travelled, staking out prominent positions in politics, culture and business, stepping into the light with their new-found legal independence. A minority of Saudi ‘liberals’ are dispensing with religious traditions altogether, adopting modest western clothing, although still adhering to rules like separate recreational areas. Most continue to embrace Islamic traditions and culture with great pride and surprising flexibility within the Koran’s interpretative framework. One asks me: “Why do women in Canada feel they can speak for my rights? Why do they think I’m oppressed? Do they know my life?” Even with the best intentions, we can’t claim to always know what is in someone else’s best interest, especially if we don’t engage and listen to them first.
As for the WTTC Global Summit, any event that brings together such a diverse group of people, cultures, companies and ideas can only be a good thing. Tourism breaks down stereotypes, facilitates dialogue, promotes engagement, and builds on generous hospitality. Next year the WTTC Global Summit is in Rwanda, another country with a problematic past, and tremendous tourism potential. If the world reaches out, we should always reach back.
Our robot overlords are coming, and they’ve got some travel tips. We recently saw the launch of ChatGPT, the most advanced AI chatbot engine yet, capable of churning out articles and stories in seconds, and freely available to test drive. “Looks like you’ll soon be out of a job,” texted a friend. If that’s the case, I thought it would be fun to let ChatGPT write a blog post. As you can see below, it does a perfectly acceptable, albeit mind-numbingly dull job, the kind of stuff you’d find on crappy SEO-web traps that feel like they’ve been created by robots anyway. Bear in mind, these stories were generated in mere seconds.
There are many things that could be on a Canadian bucket list, as Canada is a vast and diverse country with a lot to offer. Some possible items that could be on a Canadian bucket list include:
Canada offers many unique travel experiences, due to its vast and diverse landscapes, rich culture, and abundant natural beauty. Some of the most unique travel experiences in Canada could include:
That’s a decent variety GPT, but travel writers like myself write stories, so let’s try one of those:
Once upon a time, a couple decided to take a trip to Canada to explore the beautiful landscapes and rich culture of the country. They packed their bags and set off on an adventure that they would never forget.
As they flew over the vast expanse of the Canadian wilderness, they were awestruck by the stunning views of snow-capped mountains, deep forests, and crystal clear lakes. They landed in Toronto, a bustling city known for its vibrant arts and culture scene. They spent their first few days in Toronto exploring the city’s many attractions. They visited the CN Tower, one of the tallest buildings in the world, and enjoyed breathtaking views of the city from the observation deck. They also visited the Royal Ontario Museum, where they marveled at the vast collection of artifacts and exhibits.
After a few days in Toronto, they decided to rent a car and drive west to the beautiful province of Alberta. As they drove through the countryside, they were mesmerized by the stunning views of the Rocky Mountains and the vast expanses of untouched wilderness.
In Alberta, they spent their days hiking in the mountains, marveling at the breathtaking beauty of the landscape. They also visited Banff National Park, where they saw stunning glaciers, waterfalls, and wildlife.
After a week in Alberta, they continued their journey east to the province of Quebec. In Quebec, they were enchanted by the charming French-Canadian culture and the beautiful architecture of the old city of Quebec. They spent their days wandering the cobbled streets and enjoying delicious French cuisine. Their trip to Canada was an unforgettable adventure that they would always cherish. They returned home with a newfound appreciation for the beauty and diversity of the country, and a desire to explore more of its wonders in the future.
Once a upon a… zzzzz. Only a robot that never sleeps would drive from Toronto to Alberta and then head to Quebec City. Check your itinerary ChatGPT! Where’s the colour, where’s the personality, where’s the real-life funny stuff? So I asked ChatGPT to have another go.
There was once a group of friends who decided to embark on a journey to complete their Canadian bucket list. The first item on their list was to visit Niagara Falls and take a boat tour through the spectacular Niagara Gorge.
As they arrived at the falls, they were greeted by a gruff and weather-beaten tour guide who seemed to have seen it all. “Welcome to the Mighty Niagara Falls!” he boomed. “Are you ready to experience the thrill of a lifetime?”
The friends nodded eagerly, eager to get started on their adventure. The tour guide led them to a small boat that was moored at the edge of the falls. As they climbed aboard, the tour guide gave them each a yellow raincoat and a safety briefing.
“Now listen up!” he yelled over the roar of the falls. “If you fall out of the boat, don’t panic! Just grab hold of one of the life rings and we’ll fish you out!”
The friends exchanged nervous glances as they donned their raincoats and prepared for the ride of their lives. The tour guide revved up the engine and the boat set off into the heart of the Niagara Gorge. As they made their way through the swirling mists and roaring waters, the friends were awestruck by the beauty of the falls. They cheered and shouted with excitement as they passed under the powerful Horseshoe Falls, getting drenched by the mist and spray.
But just as they were beginning to relax and enjoy the ride, disaster struck. A sudden gust of wind caught hold of one of the life rings, sending it flying out of the boat and into the raging waters below. Without hesitation, the tour guide leapt into action. “Man overboard!” he yelled, diving into the water after the life ring. The friends watched in amazement as the tour guide fought against the powerful current, finally emerging triumphantly with the life ring in hand. “And that, my friends,” he said with a grin, “is how you survive a tour of the Niagara Falls!”
The friends laughed and cheered as the tour guide helped them back aboard the boat, grateful for their brush with disaster and the unforgettable experience of a lifetime.
Holy maple syrup, that’s a lot more exciting than my visit to Niagara Falls! Never mind the rapids, readers of that story must be careful to avoid drowning in thick and deadly cliches.
This has been an entertaining exercise to reassure myself that real writers add authentic, creative flair to their stories, the kind of unpredictable twists that AI bots – no matter how sophisticated – will always struggle with. We will either become more valued as a result, or future advances in the technology will be able to mimic our voices to make us redundant.
As a travel writer, I have had the opportunity to visit many amazing destinations around the world. But there is one country that always manages to surprise and delight me, no matter how many times I visit: Canada.
From the breathtaking natural beauty of the Rocky Mountains and the Bay of Fundy, to the vibrant culture and history of its cities, Canada has something for everyone.
One of my favourite things about Canada is its diverse landscape, which ranges from icy tundra in the north to lush rainforests in the west. This diversity is reflected in the wide variety of outdoor activities that are available, from skiing and snowboarding in the winter to hiking and fishing in the summer.
But Canada is more than just a paradise for nature lovers. It is also home to some of the most vibrant and exciting cities in the world, such as Toronto, Montreal, and Vancouver. These cities offer a wide range of cultural attractions, from world-class museums and galleries to lively music and arts scenes.
But what really sets Canada apart from other destinations is the warmth and hospitality of its people. Canadians are known for their friendly and welcoming attitude, and they are always happy to share their country’s rich history and culture with visitors.
Whether you are looking for adventure or relaxation, Canada has something to offer. So pack your bags and head north to experience all that this amazing country has to offer.
With that generically vanilla, paint-drying editorial effort, I think my job is safe. For now.
The Revenge of Tourism
One of the wilder news items I've come across is a financial report: “Based on the expert analysis and our database of 480+ CA industries, IBISWorld presents a list of the Fastest Growing Industries in Canada by Revenue Growth (%) in 2021.” After Covid mugged Tourism, kicked us the ground, stole our wallets, and insulted our mothers, these analysts are predicting a remarkable return.
Call it: The Revenge of Tourism: This time, it’s personal.
The Top 5 Industries:
The theory goes like this: Following a similar pattern from previous pandemics - most notably the Spanish Flu a century ago - we’ll put Covid to bed, gingerly at first, and then with more confidence. After lockdowns and restrictions, after having no events or functions or festivals or parties, there’s going to be a social explosion. Consider ticker tape victory parades for the soul, as the entire planet blows off its collective steam. Some travel experts are already warning the hospitality industry to expect bad behaviour from their guests, because everyone is going to be reaching for that extra drink, saying: “you know, what the hell!” I mean, normally, we’d wait, or hesitate, or think about tomorrow, but after a year of no tomorrows, who cares? Heaving celebrations are expected, sexual norms will be relaxed, decadence and hedonism will reach new heights. Romance, adventure, pampering, relaxation, partying – threading it all together is Tourism, which explains the wild growth predicted above. As government financial support filters through the economy (most notably the $1.9 trillion relief package in the US,) we’re about to enter a bull market for the ages. The horrors of Trumpism have somehow been averted, the masses are wising up to the dangers and ultimate folly of social media. Trade wars have been put on the backburner, and even though China and Russia continue to flex their bulging muscles – and quagmires exist in Myanmar and other failed states – optimism deserves to abound.
I personally believe we’ll look back on this decade as one of the most exciting, innovative and positive of the century. 2001 gave us a disaster, 2008 a meltdown, 2016 a disastrous meltdown. 2020 was the turning point, but the pandemic will be the accelerant for many positive social, technological, professional, and environment shifts that would not have occurred otherwise. It’s been a slog and yes, the suffering has been tremendous. While the long-term impact may be devastating for some, others will find the silver linings so thick they’ll be able to skate them. After wobbling thanks to explosive and largely unanticipated growth, the Great Reset has allowed global tourism to take stock, buckle up, and luck avoid the unsustainable mistakes of overtourism. The focus will shift to quality over quantity: more magic, less line-ups. All this travel will also make the world smaller, kinder and closer. As we all went through the pandemic together, we’ll emerge with something we’ve lacked for ages: a common purpose and global identity. We all went through it, what bigger ice-breaker do you need?
You can’t do what I do and not be an optimist. And yet, there’s one tiny fact most exuberant forecasters are omitting. The bigger the roar, the harder the fall. The pattern of pandemics is a blazing era of growth, followed by an inevitable market crash. A century ago, the roaring twenties led to the Great Depression, which left a scar on all the decades that followed. It makes me recall the Pharoah’s dream in the Bible’s story of Joseph. Expect seven fertile years, followed by seven years of hardship. We’re at the cusp of an extraordinary period of success, but it will end, and it will end hard. But let’s worry about that in a couple years. For now: get the vaccine, wait for the gates to open, and let’s prove the analysts of IbisWorld right.
Please come in. Mahalo for removing your shoes.
After many years running a behemoth of a blog called Modern Gonzo, I've decided to a: publish a book or eight, and b: make my stories more digestible, relevant, and deserving of your battered attention.
Here you will find some of my adventures to over 100 countries, travel tips and advice, rantings, ravings, commentary, observations and ongoing adventures.