MEASURING SUSTAINABLE TOURISM
Crunching the numbers at the UN World Trade Organisation
THE UN World Trade Organisation (WTO) held its sixth international session on tourism statistics with the theme “Measuring Sustainable Tourism”. I had the privilege of representing the global community of official statistics as a special envoy of the UN Statistics Commission.
My intervention was themed on trust and greatness. This was so because with both the Millennium Development Goals and their successor the Sustainable Development Goals statisticians are called upon with increasing intensity to provide the lens of rationality at the high table of politics and policy.
For statisticians who only interact with the data, we had more than we bargained for in the Philippines, which stood true to its slogan “It is more fun in the Philippines”. Part of the proceedings was a fashion catwalk that displayed the culture, fashion, cuisine, pristine nature and the contagious friendliness of the hard working Filipino peoples.
The high level opening was addressed by Secretary Tulfo-Teo, the minister of tourism in the Philippines, Secretary-General Rifai of the WTO, the President of Senate of the Philippines and I as a special envoy of the UN Statistics Commission. Below are excerpts of my address. Let me start by saying how remarkable and heartening it is to see so many of you here this morning for a conference which is focused on measurement and statistics. With all of this attention I can truly say that it is a wonderful time to be a statistician.
Statisticians are dining with royalty and the well-heeled. I trust they will contribute positively to the high table for betterment of humanity. Let us listen to Shakespeare in Twelfth Night and in this regard statisticians please do not fear greatness, for some are born great, others achieve greatness and others have greatness thrust upon them. Statisticians have to define themselves in these contexts.
Since 2000 I serve my country, South Africa, as statistician-general.
It is my duty and my privilege to lead my office, Statistics South Africa, in producing and providing the highest quality of official statistics for evidence-based policy making.
World cup of statistics
I am also proud to have served at the international level as chairperson of the 39th and 40th sessions of the UN Statistical Commission in 2008 and 2009 and in that period – in August 2009 – as the Statistician-General I had the privilege of hosting the 57th session of the International Statistics Institute – the world cup of statistics.
This Statistical Commission I have the privilege of representing at this august session was established in 1947 and brings together every year the chief statisticians from all member states around the world. It is the highest decision making body for official statistics. This commission defines the common language of statistics for virtually all economic, environmental or social matters.
When we talk about birth rates, about our national income or debt, about unemployment rates or about CO2 emissions, we, the UN member states, and we, the people, can understand each other, because we have defined the measurement of these concepts in a specific way through the Statistical Commission.
It is worth noting that in 2008 I had the honour as the chairperson to say the words “it is so decided” for the adoption of the International Recommendations for Tourism Statistics. At that moment we collectively decided what the rules would be for the measurement of tourism statistics. We decided who is a visitor, what is a tourism trip, what is covered by tourism expenditure and how to deal with tour operators.
Allow me to discuss briefly the importance of official statistics and trusted data in a world in which media in general and social media, in particular, have taken an increasingly prominent role and in which all of us are confronted with fake news and alternative facts on a daily basis.
The lines between what is fact and what is fiction have become blurred in everyday life. What is natural and what is artificial, what is real and what is virtual, have become almost impossible to distinguish.
The day of robotics is here with us. Imagine when you have successfully gone into a conversation of magandang umaga (good morning) and unbeknown to you the lady robot responds seductively and you go further and say inibi kita (I’m in love with you). Quite possible if not careful one may wed a robot and discover just too late and pay damages to an immortal object.
The mastery of language is not attributed to Dr Africa, the former head of Statistics in the Philippines, not Dr Vilora and, not my sister Dr Lisa Bersarles, who are successors to Dr Africa, but from none other than a Filipino high school teacher who taught us mathematics in 1975 in Lesotho. This was long before my first visit to the Philippines in 1996.
Against this background it is now more crucial than ever that safeguards are in place to maintain public trust in official statistics.
It is important to note that on January 29, 2014, the UN General Assembly unanimously endorsed the Fundamental Principles of Official Statistics, and offered significant political support for the independence of official statistics. For example, Principle 2 states: “To retain trust in official statistics, the statistical agencies need to decide according to strictly professional considerations, including scientific principles and professional ethics”.
The focus of this conference is on the measurement of sustainable tourism. This sector provides income and employment, but could it come at a cost for the environment and the cultural heritage. That is why we need to measure all these aspects in a coherent and integrated way. Gone are the days when the environment had no one to speak on its behalf. Not when robots can speak for themselves and pass easily for living organisms. Certainly environment deserves better and should, and demands to be treated with dignity.
Goals and targets
In this regard, sustainable tourism is of course a prime example for the goals and targets of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. Let me underscore a few important conditions for effective measurement.
First: institutional co-operation – the national statistical office cannot collect, compile and disseminate statistics all by itself. It needs co-operation and support from many national institutes, especially for a topic such as tourism.
Second: stakeholder interaction – rarefied and quiet statisticians need to go out and talk more to the users of the data, such as the tourism associations, tour operators, cultural heritage associations and environmental protection groups.
Third: system approach – tourism statistics cannot be properly understood by itself.
It needs to be embedded in a theoretical and statistical framework.
Through such integrated approach we can provide information needed by policy makers and address needs of all tourism stakeholders.
The statistical community seeks to work with all of the stakeholders, be it government, academia, private sector or civil society. It is our duty to provide relevant official statistics as an indispensable element in the information system of a democratic society. Statistics is a conduit of trust.
Table Mountain is a significant tourist attraction, with many visitors using the cableway or hiking to the top. Statistics can highlight all the needs of all the tourism stakeholders, says the writer.