Kate Simon: Tourism and human rights should go hand in hand

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The global tourism industry descended on the World Travel Market in London's Docklands last week.

This annual trade fair, held at the Excel conference centre, is gigantic – it must wear out enough shoe leather to keep an army of cobblers in business. From Albania to Zambia, every self-respecting destination and travel company beats a path here to show off their wares and seal lucrative deals.

Away from the stands (which, despite the recession, are dressed ever more lavishly each year), there's an interesting programme of seminars, where debates rage about everything from automated sales to adventure tourism trends.

One session caught my eye: "Business and Human Rights: Challenges and Opportunities for Tourism" doubled as the launch of an important industry briefing by the campaigning group Tourism Concern. It has published a report urging the travel industry to integrate a human rights approach into its business strategies.

While many players, large and small, are trying to acknowledge their responsibilities towards the environment, far fewer have even embraced the notion of developing a sustainable approach to the rights of workers and communities where they have business interests.

Tricia Barnett, of Tourism Concern, tells me: "No one wants to go on holiday thinking that they are part of a process that could be abusing human rights. Of course, they would never know. Human rights abuses are hidden. It could be that they're luxuriating in a wonderful pool or playing golf, unaware that the demand for water to supply them might leave locals without access to clean water."

The problem isn't confined to draining local resources. As Tricia points out, the treatment of staff is also a major problem. "We might not realise that our tip could make the difference as to whether a chambermaid can send her children to school because she doesn't earn a living wage."

Tourism Concern believes governments should be called to account when they fail to uphold citizens' rights. "And we hold the travel businesses responsible when they don't pay due care to respect human rights," adds Tricia. "There's an onus on them to ensure they are not complicit in rights violations."

The group wants to get the industry to face the challenges and practicalities of taking seriously their corporate responsibility on human rights. So, the seminar's panel included a representative from the Kuoni Group, a holiday company that is developing a human rights policy and framework for implementation based on the Guiding Principles recently published by the United Nations.

The most important point about Tourism Concern's report is that it understands that solid reasons are needed to persuade the tourism businesses to show respect for human rights. It comprehensively lays out the key human rights issues facing tourism, as well as documenting the adverse publicity attracted by companies where they have ignored these principles.

You can get hold of a copy of the report ("Why the Tourism Industry Needs to Take a Human Rights Approach: The Business Case", price £10) via tourismconcern.org.uk. Even if you don't work in the industry, it makes for a compelling and thought-provoking read.

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