When he was in his early 20s, a young Barack Obama visited Europe for the first time. He fondly remembers traveling alone, riding an overnight bus from Madrid to Barcelona, sharing a baguette with a fellow traveler who, in turn, shared his wine. They didn’t speak the same language, but it was that simple, human interaction that reinforced the fact that people around the world are intrinsically similar, despite cultural differences. At the World Travel and Tourism Council’s Global Summit in Spain this week, Obama shared this particular memory, citing the importance of meaningful travel and how it can build bridges of cultural understanding and acceptance.
There’s no doubt that travel is transformative and stepping outside of one’s borders offers a global perspective that provides a new purview of the world. For a man who is admittedly very well traveled, Obama credits early trips like the one to Europe, for his own self discovery. “Those kinds of trips are memorable because they’re part of you as a young person, trying to discover what your place in the world is,” he said. “There is something unique about being a young person traveling.”
When asked what his most memorable trip was, however, his response was immediate. “For me, traveling now with my children is what’s most memorable,” said Obama. “There’s something spectacular about seeing a new place, experiencing a different culture, being exposed to new ideas. Travel makes you grow.” He joked about the time he was walking through the Kremlin and his youngest daughter Sasha, who was seven at the time, was wearing a trench coat and looked like an international spy. And then there was the time Obama was in Italy for the G20 and the family went to the Vatican to meet the Pope. Or the time the family went to Ghana and there was dancing on the tarmac. “As a parent, when you’re able to watch that sense of discovery through your children’s eyes, that is more special than anything else.”
Throughout the moderated conversation with Hilton CEO Chris Nassetta, Obama spoke to an audience of global leaders and tourism industry professionals, acknowledging that the last decade of globalization and advances in technology have stitched the world together like never before and travel and tourism is now the second fastest growing sector in the world.
Tourism creates economic opportunities and growing up in Hawaii, Obama saw the direct connection between tourism and economic growth. According to recent figures, travel and tourism contributed over ten percent to the global GDP and that number is projected to grow steadily, raising the obvious question of sustainability.
Obama expressed concern about the environment, explaining the correlation between climate change and larger global issues like drought, famine and migration patterns. “Climate change is not something off in the future, it is demonstrably happening right now. Some of the most beautiful places on this planet are at risk,” he said. “The good news is that there are things we can do to make a difference.” During the Global Summit, sustainable tourism was top of mind and the industry agrees there needs to be more education around what that actually means-and how it can be done better.
Contrary to popular belief, sustainable tourism goes beyond environmental sustainability to include authentic cultural exchange and awareness, as well as the creation of economic opportunities in the communities that are visited. Sustainable tourism is not a niche industry. The onus is on the travel and tourism industry to become more sustainable as a whole.
Fortunately, says Obama, “The generations behind us are more sophisticated, worldly, more cosmopolitan and more appreciative of other cultures,” referring to Millennials and Gen Z. His daughter Malia Obama was clearly influenced by her early travels and chose to take a gap year and continue traveling before heading to college at Harvard.
Today’s youth are more connected than ever before, with the world at their fingertips, literally. They are genuinely curious about other cultures, more inclined to hop on a flight and spend the weekend in another country, engage in community-based travel and spend their hard earned dollars on ethically made products that have layers of impact.
“Young travelers have a different attitude, they want experiences. What really excites them is being able to feel as if they are interacting with a new culture, learning, meeting people,” said Obama. “So I think for this industry, trying to figure out how to capture the energy and vibrancy of young people and that market, that’s where I think things will be trending generally. You also have to be environmentally conscious. If not, I think they’re going to be less interested.”