It’s the week of the World Travel Market (WTM), one of the world’s largest travel and tourism trade fairs, attracting exhibitors and visitors from across the globe. Since 1980 the WTM has been held annually in London, and each year destinations vie with each other to attract the attention of tour operators, travel agents and the media.
The event follows a pattern similar to most travel industry fairs. Individual countries pay for space on which they assemble a stand ranging from just a small booth to a vast pavilion. (It’s not always quite so clear. For example, there’s a ‘Belgium’ pavilion – but this only represents Brussels and French-speaking Wallonia; there’s an entirely separate Flanders pavilion. On the other hand Ireland is far more inclusive, representing both sides of this still divided island.)
Usually there’s some obvious relationship between the size and look of a country’s stand and the importance that tourism plays there. Spain, Italy, Turkey and France all have vast display areas, but the scale of the presence of other countries is often surprising. The United Arab Emirates, for example, sprawls across several pavilions, promoting airlines, luxury hotels, vacation home developments and shopping experiences. While it’s true that Dubai has somehow managed to become a major destination, even well-travelled people are likely to struggle to name the other six emirates. (There’s Abu Dhabi, of course, but also Ajman, Fujairah, Ras al-Khaimah, Sharjah and Umm al-Quwain.) All are at the WTM, apparently trying to convince the world that each one of them is the Gulf’s next big destination. Despite all that Umm al-Quwain may have going for it, it may be a while before international tourism really takes off there.
A wander through the massive exhibition centre offers a glimpse of how parts of the world seek to promote themselves. Some countries that usually participate are not here this year. Presumably the absence this year of Paraguay and the Republic of San Marino is simply because it’s they feel exhibiting at the WTM can’t be justified economically. Sierra Leone, Ukraine and Yemen have also decided not to sent exhibitors, their reasoning no doubt being that there are more pressing issues (such as national survival) than the promotion of tourism. That said, there are some surprisingly optimistic faces.
One might not think that Iraq would be in the forefront of anyone’s 2015 travel bucket list – but the country’s Ministry of Tourism & Antiquities supports a large presence at the WTM. When I passed by, the stand was almost entirely empty of exhibitors, the sole exception being the wonderfully positive representative of the Imam Ali Holy Shrine in Najaf. In smiley PR-speak, she told me that while the north of the country has “some issues”, the situation in the south is “stable”, with large numbers of Shia pilgrims from Iran, Afghanistan continuing to visit Najaf. What Iraq’s presence is really about is the making of a simple statement: “We are here”. To one degree or another, that’s what many other stands are also doing.
Judging from the lavish brochures, and even books, that are handed out by the exhibitors from oil-rich Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan, both countries can boast an abundance of natural beauty, historical and cultural wealth – but does anyone truly believe that the supposedly marvelous vineyards and wines (Azerbaijan) and ski resorts (Kazakhstan) will attract, anytime soon, more than a trickle of western tourists? Almost certainly not: as a representative of Kazakhstan’s Ministry for Investment and Development explained, “for now, we really just want to get the name of our country recognised.”
Certainly everyone knows at least something about Saudi Arabia, but it’s not widely considered much of a tourist destination. Sure, it’s understood that each year hundreds of thousands of pilgrims from all over the world visit Mecca to perform the Hajj, but the exhibitors in the Saudi pavilion (the first at the WTM for some years) make a point of saying that this religious duty is unrelated to tourism. So, instead of pictures of holy shrines and mosques, the Saudi pavilion features large photos depicting a lush, green, landscape and traditional stone buildings, very different the kind of images of the country that are usually presented.
But attracting tourists, per se, is certainly not an intention. Instead, along with cups of sweet tea and dates, visitors to the pavilion are given a leaflet explaining why tourist visas are not yet available. Apart from seeking to challenge people’s preconceptions of Saudi Arabia, the reason for the WTM presence is to help attract investment (perhaps surprisingly, given Saudi Arabia’s immense wealth) to expand the tourism infrastructure, needed for the fast-expanding domestic market.
Nigeria is another country that’s rarely associated with tourism, but it boasts one of the largest areas within the section of the WTM devoted to Africa. Presumably people of Nigerian heritage living abroad boost tourist numbers and there will always be plenty of business travellers to what is, after all, Africa’s largest economy. Despite this, it was almost impossible to get a sense of what the point of Nigeria’s presence was – apart from serving as a market place for Nigerian crafts, books and “Monopoly: Lagos Edition”.
While the Nigerians seemed baffled by their own presence, at least the Bangladeshi exhibitors seemed enthused by the “products” that they are trying to promote – river cruises, tigers and cultural tourism. Although Bangladesh receives large numbers of visitors from abroad, most (as with Nigeria) are business travellers or Bangladeshis (and their children) living abroad. Realistically, Bangladesh will never become much of a tourist destination, but if the country succeeds in convincing just a few people to spend some days there, as part of a wider trip to the Indian sub-continent, its limited ambitions will have been successful.
Even one tourist this year will be an achievement for Experience North Korea, the only – and first – exhibitor selling the delights of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. This Shanghai-based tour operator attracted considerable attention to its tiny stand, in part owing to the fact that the company’s WTM launch coincided with the already paranoid North Korea suspending, indefinitely, all tourist visits as a defense against Ebola. Whether there’s more to this is anyone’s guess – but certainly the flows of international tourism here, as with many other parts of the world, are not always straight forward.