Last week the Irish Hotels Federation had their conference in Kilkenny, where a number of topics related to the tourism industry were discussed.

Tourism operators boast of success, but in reality we are falling behind in some areas, as a new international report shows.

Competitiveness is a key element for Ireland to be wary of in the years ahead. But we are also losing ground in a number of other areas.

Our Continental neighbours seem to be scoring higher on many different ratings.

Last week, we wrote about how litter carelessness is affecting our own local area. Over building of one-off housing in rural areas is another problem.

The Government has recently relaxed rules on this matter, as have the County Council in Waterford. This can only further damage the local environment.

Switzerland, Austria and Germany have the most attractive environments for developing the travel and tourism industry, according to the second annual Travel and Tourism Competitiveness Report 2008, released last week by the World Economic Forum.

Ireland did not even reach the top 10 with Australia, Spain, the United Kingdom, the United States, Sweden, Canada and France completing the top 10 list.

We were ranked at 21 (see the W.E.F. website for country profile which shows where we falter).

“The dependence of tourism on the quality of the natural environment leads national governments and the tourism industry to focus increasingly on environmental protection,” said Thea Chiesa, Head of Aviation, Travel and Tourism at the World Economic Forum.

In this context, this year’s report, under the theme Balancing Economic Development and Environmental Sustainability, places a particular focus on the issue, both through a reinforced environmental component of the index used to measure travel & tourism (T&T) competitiveness and through topics covered by the analytical chapters.

Improvements have been made to the Travel & Tourism Competitiveness Index this year. The “environmental regulation” pillar has been revised and improved as well as being re-named the “environmental sustainability” pillar to better reflect its components and to capture the increasingly recognised importance of sustainability in the sector’s development.

The TTCI measures the factors and policies that make it attractive to develop the T&T sector in different countries. It is composed of 14 pillars of travel and tourism competitiveness:

1. Policy rules and regulations

2. Environmental sustainability

3. Safety and security

4. Health and hygiene

5. Prioritization of travel and tourism

6. Air transport infrastructure

7. Ground transport infrastructure

8. Tourism infrastructure

9. Information and communication technology (ICT) infrastructure

10. Price competitiveness

11. Human capital

12. Affinity for travel & tourism

13. Natural resources

14. Cultural resources

This cross-country analysis of the drivers of competitiveness in travel and tourism provides useful comparative information for making business decisions and additional value to governments wishing to improve their travel and tourism environments.

The rankings cover 130 countries around the world. The TTCI uses a combination of data from publicly available sources, international T&T institutions and T&T experts, as well as the results of the Executive Opinion Survey, a comprehensive annual survey conducted by the World Economic Forum in the report.

The survey provides unique data on many qualitative institutional and business environment issues.

“Our study is not a ‘beauty contest’ on the attractiveness of a country. Rather, we aim to measure the factors that make it attractive to develop the travel and tourism industry of individual countries.

“The top-ranked countries demonstrate the importance of supportive business and regulatory frameworks, coupled with world-class transport and tourism infrastructure and a focus on nurturing human and natural resources,” said Jennifer Blanke, Senior Economist of the World Economic Forum’s Global Competitiveness Network.

“Over the past three years, the World Economic Forum has engaged key industry and thought leaders through its Aviation, Travel & Tourism Industry Partnership Programme to carry out an in-depth analysis of the T&T competitiveness of economies around the world.

“The World Tourism Organisation is a strong supporter of this competitive analysis to encourage improvement in the capacity of countries and companies to provide quality sustainable tourism. Once again, the results should not be seen as a league table of global tourism performance.

“The report assists both public and private sectors in identifying their strengths and their weaknesses, in order to outline an approach for attaining long-lasting and sustainable tourism from a global perspective. The completion of this report complements the aims and objectives of the WTTC.”

“This year’s Index focuses on the importance of sustainability in tourism. There has been much debate about the responsibilities of governments, of businesses and of individuals towards climate change. Naturally, the tourism industry is in the spotlight. The long-haul flights that bring tourists to countries around the world, plus their use of hotel accommodation, add to the ongoing debate about the impact travel is having on climate change. The time is right for the hotel industry to make sure its own house is in order,” said Alex Kyriakidis, Global Managing Partner of Tourism, Hospitality & Leisure at Deloitte.

“Nature-based tourism is increasingly becoming a driver in tourism development for many destinations. This makes a clear business case for the implementation of effective policies and measures that will ensure that the effective conservation of nature is at the heart of the tourism economy,” said Julia Marton-Lefèvre, Director-General of IUCN-The World Conservation Union.

Is Ireland strong enough on this point, we wonder.

Air travel

“The index confirms the vital role played by air transport in underpinning international competitiveness and economic development. There is an environmental cost. Air transport contributes 2% of global carbon emissions. Our goal is simple: keep the economic benefits and eliminate the environmental impact. That is why IATA is uniting the industry around a vision for carbon-neutral growth leading to a carbon-free future,” said Giovanni Bisignani, Chief Executive Officer and Director General, the International Air Transport Association (IATA).

“One of the key success factors of driving competitiveness in the Travel and Tourism Industry is to implement a sustainable strategy that balances both short-term economical as well as long-term ecological goals.

“This needs to be driven by a smart regulatory framework that gives private operators the incentive to embrace environmental management as part of their business objectives,” said Dr Jürgen Ringbeck, Partner and Senior Vice-President of Booz Allen Hamilton. “Customers increasingly demand ‘green’ tourism services and global private T&T players have a growing need to take this opportunity and promote destinations that value environmental sustainability.”

The Report also features a number of excellent contributions from T&T industry practitioners and experts, dealing with issues related directly to T&T competitiveness and with a particular focus this year on environmental sustainability. The chapters explore issues such as the best mechanisms for reducing travel-related emissions, the ways in which green strategies will alter how the tourism industry operates and how environmental sustainability has more generally become a key driver of tourism competitiveness. The last part of the report contains detailed country profiles for the 130 economies featured in the study, providing a comprehensive summary of the overall position in the Index rankings as well as a guide to what are considered to be the most prominent T&T competitive advantages and disadvantages of each.

“Among the formidable challenges facing governments, businesses, and consumers today is how to accurately gather data and business intelligence on our environmental impact – particularly carbon footprints – at a time when climate change is a critical global issue,” noted Jeff Clarke, President and CEO of Travel Port, one of the world’s largest travel conglomerates. “The industry cannot advance environmentally sustainable travel without a detailed understanding of its current impact on the environment.

“As an industry, we are committed to environmentally sustainable Travel & Tourism and we need to create greater awareness by leveraging reports such as this to communicate the importance of tourism to economic development, cultural understanding and peace among nations”.

The Travel & Tourism Competitiveness Report was produced by the World Economic Forum in close collaboration with its Strategic Design Partner, Booz Allen Hamilton, and Data Partners Deloitte, the International Air Transport Association (IATA), IUCN-The World Conservation Union, the World Tourism Organisation (UNWTO) and the World Travel & Tourism Council (WTTC).