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The Interview - Ion Vilcu, Director for Affiliate Members at U.N. World Tourism Organization (UNWTO)

It has been a pleasure to Interview Ion Vilcu, Director for Affiliate Members at U.N. World Tourism Organization (UNWTO) SPSG Consulting, and his CEO, Carlos Cantó, have a vast experience in advising cities, regions and countries to become innovative Sport Tourism destinations.

The World Tourism Organization (UNWTO) is headquartered in Madrid/Spain, one of Top 3 tourism destinations in the world. You have a very extensive international professional experience, having lived in countries such as Romania (where you were born), México, Chile, Argentina and Spain, as Ambassador of Romania in these countries and currently as Director of the UNWTO Affiliate Members Department. From this very relevant position, you have a privileged panoramic view and understanding of the situation of the tourism industry in the world. According to your vast experience and knowledge, which are the main challenges that the tourism sector is facing nowadays.

Fortunately, currently we are experiencing a very solid recovery in tourism after the devastating impact of the pandemic, a recovery that is taking place, however, in a global environment with significant challenges. According to our most recent data – the UNWTO Barometer published few days ago- international tourism registered an extremely robust performance in 2022, with international arrivals reaching 63% of pre-pandemic levels and with Europe in the lead. This means that over 900 million tourists traveled internationally in 2022, double the number recorded in 2021.

These numbers are encouraging, but this recovery process, as well as our efforts towards building of a long-term sustainable tourism industry, are taking place in a global scenario marked by significant challenges. The combination of increasing interest rates in all major economies, rising energy and food prices and the growing prospects of a global recession are in our evaluation the major risks to the recovery of international tourism through the remainder of 2023. High inflation has increased the cost of living around the world, reduced household budgets and put extra pressure on companies recovering from the crisis, particularly small and medium enterprises. The war in Ukraine and mounting geopolitical tensions in different parts of the world are also adding to the uncertainty.

It is also worth noting that the sector is currently suffering from a human resources shortage. After COVID19, employees within the travel industry moved to other sectors or out of the labor market completely. Now, as demand for labor keeps rising while supply is scarce, tourism will have to compete against other sectors to attract new talent. Educating and training a young workforce plays an important role in this regard.

Sports tourism is one of the fastest growing sectors in tourism. More and more tourists are interested in sport activities during their trips whether sports are the main objective of travel or not. Sport events of various kinds and sizes attract tourists as participants or spectators and destinations try to add local flavors to them to differentiate themselves and provide authentic local experiences. Mega sport events such as Olympics and World Cups, F1 Races, Sail GP or the ATP/WTA tournaments, can be a catalyst for tourism development if successfully leveraged in terms of destination branding, infrastructure development and other economic and social benefits. It is estimated that in certain destinations sports generates around 8-12% of the tourism activity. According to your information and understanding, what are the main challenges the Sport Tourism is facing from a destination perspective?

Precisely to have first-hand information on the perception and challenges of destinations in this thematic area, we have recently carried out a survey among the destinations affiliated to UNWTO with expertise in this regard -including destinations that hosted world-class sports events, such as Seoul, Barcelona or Cape Town- as well as among others that are becoming increasingly interested in this segment of tourism.

It is worth underlying that, in accordance with said valuable input, the availability of adequate infrastructure, sport venues, relevant budget for promotion purposes and functional public – private cooperation are the main challenges sport tourism destinations are facing.

Having said this, it is important to highlight that Sports Tourism is a sophisticated and complex area, including several types of activities, such as:

Specific Sport Tourism: travelling to the destination to practice (and participate at) a sport activity (ie: surfing in Bali, skiing in Andorra, cycling in Colorado, marathoning in Valencia or New York City, etc.)

Events: travelling to the destination to attend a sport event (ie: Olympic and Paralympic Games, FIFA World Cup, F1 races, ATP/WTA events, UEFA Champions League matches, SailGP races, etc.)

Academies and Training camps: travelling to a destination to train and learn, both as a professional or as an amateur athlete (individually or as a team)

As an activity at the destination: To attend a sport event or to participate in a sport event while the visitor is at the destination, not being the primary reason to travel to the destination.

MICE: travelling to the destination to attend MICE events related to the sports industry (Sport Federation Congresses; Sport events organizers meetings; private sport industry stakeholders conventions and Forums, etc.)

• “Nostalgia”: travelling to the destination to visit a Museum / site / Hall of Fame, etc. related to Sports. As an example, IOC Museum in Lausanne (Switzerland).

The UNWTO, and specifically the Affiliate Member Department that you are leading, is working in providing support to the interested destinations to shape their sport tourism strategies. What are the main activities that UNWTO is developing in this regard?

UNWTO is assigning to the area Sports Tourism a priority role in the Organization´s agenda for 2023 and beyond, with the objective to generate knowledge and, on this basis, to offer valuable guidelines and recommendations to the destinations, as well as partnership and collaboration opportunities. I am proud that this key topic has achieved such a high priority on our agenda thanks to the extraordinary contributions and proposals of UNWTO´s network of more than 450 affiliated private and public specialized entities, among which we count on many with relevant knowledge and solid expertise. Just to mention some examples, we have top football clubs (such as Atletico de Madrid and F.C. Porto), leading International Federations (such as the Federation Internationale d’Automobile - FIA), destinations from all over the world with extensive expertise in this area (such as Barcelona, Seoul, Cape Town, Zagreb etc.).

Within this context, we are developing a consistent agenda of Sports & Tourism projects and calendar of specific activities for the current stage. Few days ago, within FITUR 2023 -the international Spanish Tourism Fair, one of the most important globally- we showcased, in the thematic section FITUR Sports, the key findings of our recent survey carried out among affiliated destinations, with the objective to first-hand know the main concerns, challenges and needs of the destinations when it comes to positioning themselves as sports tourism destinations. This research will serve as input for the elaboration of a Handbook on how to position a Tourism destination through Sports, including cases of best practices from affiliate destinations and a set of useful recommendations. We plan to implement outreach and promotional activities, such as workshops and webinars, addressing sports tourism from different perspectives, to continue generating and sharing knowledge. And we are working in preparing the most important UNWTO global event on sports tourism in 2023, namely the 2nd World Sports Tourism Congress, to be held in Zadar, Croatia, 26-27 April.

What are the objectives and the main topics to be addressed by said World Sports Tourism Congress to be held on April in Croatia?

As I mentioned, this Congress will be the most ambitious UNWTO’s initiative on sports tourism for this year and our objective is to transform it in a turning point of the process of efficiently incorporating Sports in UNWTO´s agenda. We have the perfect partner and host for such an event - the Government of Croatia- a reference at the global in this topic, considering its long-term tradition and remarkable achievements in sports, along with its capacity to take advantage of sports as a driver towards the development of tourism in the country.

The Congress will serve as framework to deepen the study of sports tourism, a segment with enormous potential and one of the fastest-growing tendency, as well as to draw up insights and conclusions that may generate innovative ideas and inspire the destinations. Of course, it will also allow UNWTO to reinforce its leading role in this thematic area and Croatia to strengthen its position as global reference in sports & tourism segment. We are preparing a comprehensive programme, featuring speakers from all over the world and from different segments of sports tourism, from a wide range of organizations at the national and international level. The Congress will address several key aspects such as sports tourism economic impact, its contribution to the SDGs, the keys to promote a destination through hosting sport events, sponsorships etc.

The UNWTO offers, through its network of public and private affiliate members, an effective platform for public-private cooperation in tourism. To what extent do you consider that the effective coordination and cooperation between the public and the private sector is key for the efforts of a destination in terms becoming a successful Sport Tourism destination?

Public-private partnership is crucial for the tourism industry and all related activities. The Affiliate Members Department, that I have the honor to coordinate, is precisely in charge with managing a solid network of more than 450 members, that are leading tourism private and public entities (i.e. local administrations, universities, professional associations, private companies such as hotels, airlines, tour operators etc.). Given this specificity of said “two-pilar” membership – i.e. both Governments and private & public entities- UNWTO is an organization with a relevant capacity to bring into the current and future strategic debate in tourism both the perspective of private and public stakeholders.

There is broad consensus on the key role of public-private partnership (PPP) to find innovative and feasible solutions, develop new tourism models and advance towards a more sustainable, responsible and inclusive tourism sector and, of course, this also applies to the specific case of the successful management of the Sports & Tourism by a destination. The effective implementation of the mentioned PPP is quite challenging, considering the diversity of profiles and wide scope of entities involved in sports and tourism. But an effective public -private partnership is the only operational basis to build the infrastructure required to host big sports events, to attract professional and/or amateur athletes to train at the destination or to design and implement sustainable and inclusive strategies in this field. Although it is not an easy task, we have very successful examples, such as Croatia, proving that it is not only possible, but also very beneficial, achieving to transform sports in a driver for the competitive and sustainable tourism industry. And UNWTO is working intensively to support the interested destinations to successfully advance in this direction.

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