Interview with Eugenio Yunis

Eugenio Yunis

Main positions of responsibility held by Mr. Eugenio Yunis:

Dear Mr. Yunis, first of all a big greeting from the members of the Steering Committee of the Tourism and Society Think Tank, and from the president Mr. Antonio Santos, and the recognition and appreciation of all for your great contribution to world tourism for so many years.

First of all, we would like to know more about who Eugenio Yunis is and what he stands for. Please, how did a civil engineer like you become one of the leading figures in international tourism?

First of all, I would like to thank TSTT, and in particular its President Antonio Santos, for this interview.

After obtaining my degree in Civil Engineering at the University of Chile, I undertook postgraduate studies at the University of Grenoble, France, where I obtained a D.E.A. in Development Economics. This enabled me to work for 6 years in a major British consulting firm on multiple development projects, in sectors such as agriculture, textiles and footwear, transport infrastructure, service exports, and also hospitality and tourism, in numerous countries on 5 continents. From there, I went on to work in 1981 for the nascent World Tourism Organisation, first as a resident consultant, and then in various management positions.

After years of being involved in international tourism management in different areas, how would you rate the tourism situation in the world and in the Americas?

The world tourism situation seems to be recovering from the sharp decline during the pandemic, but this is only if we consider only international tourist arrivals and the foreign exchange earnings they generate. 

On the other hand, crisis situations have increased in many destinations due to the problems generated by the excess of tourists they receive. It is no longer just Venice and Barcelona that are saturated, but recently destinations such as Dubrovnik, Bruges, Amsterdam, Edinburgh, Majorca, Athens, among many others in Europe, have been added to this list, not to mention certain museums and attractions that are very popular all over the world, which are now forced to establish daily visitor quotas in order not to generate overcrowding and damage to heritage. But also national parks, archaeological sites and small towns in the Americas, Asia and Africa are suffering from over-tourism. As the mass of tourists travelling around the world continues to grow, these problems will increase and residents in more and more destinations will react negatively, and rightly so. It is therefore urgent that preventive and palliative measures are generated by governments and tourism businesses, so that tourism can once again become a sustainable and positive industry for the communities that receive tourists.

In terms of the Americas, I believe there has been notable progress in countries such as Mexico, the Dominican Republic and other Caribbean islands, at least in terms of international tourist arrivals. In South America, however, I see a relative stagnation; for several decades the percentage of international tourists arriving in our countries has remained at a meagre percentage of the world total (approx. 3%), while Asia, and Southeast Asia in particular, captures a growing percentage every year, as do the countries of the Middle East.

And the situation of the tourism industry in your country?

In general, Chile's tourism industry is in good health, but it is suffering from the same stagnation as the rest of South America. The pandemic had a very strong impact, and there are still hotel establishments that have closed or changed their destination. 

Nevertheless, I believe that this downturn represents an opportunity to rethink the type of tourism that suits the country. In my opinion, and in light of the serious problems that mass tourism has generated in European and Asian destinations - both in environmental and social and cultural terms - Chile is better off with selective, small-scale, high value-added tourism. Our country has magnificent nature, remarkably varied and rich, but very fragile; that is our main comparative advantage, but at the same time our main risk if we bring in indiscriminate masses of tourists. The same goes for cultural wealth: we have small archaeological destinations, small towns or villages with indigenous communities that maintain their traditions, and the value of these can be destroyed if we fill them with tourists. 

We need to work carefully with both the managers of natural and cultural assets and the host communities, to decide together with them the maximum limits of tourists, to involve them and to train them for a very professional and high quality tourism management. It is also necessary to work selectively with incoming tour operators and with outbound tour operators from foreign countries to define together the market segments that should be attracted to our country.

You know the UNWTO very well as you have held important positions in this institution. Some of us wonder, and we ask you, what do you think is the current role of the World Tourism Organisation?

I currently see a UNWTO that is very active in very flashy and public relations activities: competitions, appointment of tourism ambassadors, very bombastic declarations on various topics, which may be useful but have little impact. On the contrary, I see little focus on what I believe should be its central mission, namely: the definition of what sustainable tourism development should be, to achieve what objectives, how to achieve them, what its limits should be, and other questions that governments should ask themselves and that many do not know how to answer. UNWTO should develop higher technical capacities to be able to adequately serve the tourism ministries of its member states on the crucial issues of tourism policy and planning.

The UNWTO still evaluates tourism by the number of international tourist arrivals, and one only has to look at its press releases in this regard. This is wrong in my view, as governments are encouraged to compete by simply adding more and more tourists, and thus appear higher in the UNWTO rankings; this is a fallacy, as the real economic, social, cultural and environmental contribution of tourism is not assessed, nor are its negative impacts, which certainly exist, measured. An international body should also raise warnings about excessive tourism and the risks it entails, just as the World Health Organisation warns about pandemics and other health risks. By contrast, little has been said recently about how tourism can contribute to ending extreme poverty, or to reducing the huge economic inequalities that are growing in almost every country. A strong international voice is also needed to say that tourism has limits, and what mechanisms exist to establish such limits in each destination, how to implement them, how to enforce them, and how to measure the positive and negative impacts of tourism.

Gone are the days when tourism had to be pushed at all costs; more and more and more tursitas was the currency. A new paradigm is now required that asks: what is tourism for, where is it for and where is it not for, how to do it so that it produces the desired effects, with whom and by whom to do it?  And in these questions the UNWTO should play a leading role..

In contact with important actors in the tourism industry and to our question on the importance of international tourism institutions, do you consider that institutions such as UNWTO-OMT or WTTC, which are two of the most important institutions in the world, have real relevance in the development of tourism, or are they simply spaces to develop relations and generate meetings?

The roles of UNWTO-OMT, as an intergovernmental institution and related to the United Nations system, should be as outlined above, and not purely to develop relationships and meetings, as is often the case.

The WTTC, on the other hand, is a trade union, inter-business body, which cannot be asked to dictate how tourism should be developed. If it defines certain ethical, social responsibility and sustainability guidelines for companies, as in fact it does, that is fine and is to be congratulated. But companies cannot be entrusted with tasks that belong to public bodies, which are the ones that should look after the general interest of nations and with a long-term vision.

As a former director of the Chilean Federation of Tourism Companies, do you think that the national authorities understand the reality of the tourism industry?

Unfortunately, I believe that the potential of tourism in Chile is still not fully understood, especially as an engine for local development in isolated communities, close to exceptional natural attractions such as those found throughout Chile. Some progress has been made in valuing its economic dimension, but much less as a sector that can add value to cultural and natural assets, and which requires state support and clear regulations for its proper development.

How is the Undersecretariat of Tourism collaborating with the private sector to promote tourism?

Without being involved, directly or indirectly, in either the Undersecretariat or the private sector, I have the impression from media reports that there are frequent contacts between the two sectors, but how are these contacts reflected in concrete joint actions and results that reflect a concerted development of tourism?

After the impact and subsequent return to "normality", do you consider that the pandemic has introduced relevant changes in the behaviour of tourists and travellers, or has everything remained relatively unchanged?

It is still premature to make a judgement on this. In these 12 to 15 months of "post-pandemic", there has been a sometimes compelling desire to "make up for lost time" (also known as "revenge tourism"). In the medium term, it is likely that more stringent health requirements by tourists will take hold in the destinations they visit and in hotel and catering establishments. As a corollary, it is also likely that tourists, or a significant percentage of them, will be willing to pay more to ensure that the destination and its hotels and restaurants are reliable in terms of hygiene and food safety.

Another change that can be observed, but which is not necessarily a product of the pandemic, is the search for less saturated destinations, whether in rural or mountainous areas, in small towns that are still alien to mass tourism but which have attractions and singularities, and on islands and beaches off the beaten track.

Torres del Paine (Chile)

To the best of your knowledge, what do you consider to be the main trends in international tourism?

One of these trends is the search for new destinations by the demand side, already mentioned in the answer to the previous question. It is to be hoped that this trend will deepen in order to relieve saturated destinations and to achieve a wider distribution of the benefits of tourism.

Another trend, this time on the supply side, is the continuing integration of the international hotel industry, with mergers and acquisitions and the formation of mega hotel groups and even in the gastronomy sector. The same can be observed in the air transport industry, where we also see a growing preponderance of low-cost airlines capturing an increasing share of the market. 

A surprising trend is the shortage of skilled labour in the industry; surprising because there are tens of thousands of young people graduating each year from the thousands of tourism, hospitality and gastronomy educational institutions. Is there a problem of pronounced seasonality that makes it unattractive to pursue a career in the industry? Or is it that the training provided by academic institutions is not adequate? Or are the salaries offered not competitive with other industries? Or other reasons? This is an issue that needs to be investigated in depth in order to propose long-term solutions.

From a distance, it seems that the current situation in many countries in the region is not the most ideal for tourism development. Social protests, elections of leaders, etc. What is the current situation for Latin American tourism?

Indeed, as is the case with the socio-economic development of most Latin American countries, tourism is also waiting for its moment. For three quarters of a century it has been said that Latin America has a "great future", but this future does not become the present, it is always a future. There is political instability, there are frequent changes in economic development strategies, there is populism with false promises, there are exchange rate fluctuations and currency speculation, there is growing social unrest, there is crime linked to drug trafficking and insecurity, there is little cooperation between the nations of the continent, and more recently there are massive flows of illegal immigration, among other ills, and for all these reasons Latin America continues to lag behind. 

Against this backdrop, it is difficult for tourism to prosper and become one of the axes of economic and social development. There is no shortage of resources and attractions. Nor is there a lack of entrepreneurial dynamism. What is lacking is a more stable economic environment, public policies that ensure social peace and security, and committed governments that give tourism the priority it deserves in their government programmes, and in sectors linked to tourism such as the construction and maintenance of transport infrastructure, as well as a stable regulatory framework that stimulates investment and guarantees the normal operation of tourism businesses.

There is a lot of talk about the digitalisation of the tourism industry and every time we talk to important tourism stakeholders, each one defines it in a different way, in many cases totally different. How would you define the digitalisation of the tourism industry?

It is not for me to define digitalisation, as I am not qualified to do so. What I do believe is that new digital technologies should be used primarily for the management and marketing of companies, which can increase their productive efficiency and improve control of operations with these technologies. On the contrary, digitalisation should not be incorporated to replace tourist service. Personal and personalised contact between host and visitor is part of the richness of the tourism experience, and this direct contact is increasingly sought after by tourists, especially high spenders. Automating and depersonalising the services provided to tourists is, in my opinion, not a good idea and goes against the essence of tourism.

As a professional and academic, do you think that the big academic centres prepare future professionals for the dynamic reality of tourism?

There are many academic centres that offer training and prepare future professionals: universities, institutes, technical training centres, academies, schools, and similar institutions. And while there are many, the qualities also vary, and it is impossible to give a general opinion on the whole, let alone worldwide. Some institutions are truly excellent, but many others have lagged behind with anachronistic, undynamic training programmes that do not look at the possible futures of the industry and prepare those who will be in charge according to those future scenarios. An essential element of training in this century is that students learn to learn, learn to innovate continuously, and also learn about the risks and impacts of tourism.

Back to you, do you miss being in international positions or bodies?

No, not at all. I have been in many positions of high responsibility, both in my country and internationally, and this for 35 years. But there comes a time in life when you want more peace and quiet, more time for other activities, for your family, and so on. It is essential at a certain age to know how to step aside, to make room for new generations, and in any case to remain available to advise whoever asks for it.

There has always been talk of Eugenio Yunis holding important positions in Chilean tourism. Do you think he will again receive the call from the authorities to lead national tourism management politically? And if you were to receive the call, would you accept it for the good of Chilean tourism?

I really doubt that I will receive a call from the authorities, much less to lead national tourism management politically; if I did, I would not accept it either, although I am always willing to contribute what I can modestly from the outside. I have fulfilled my mission at various moments in Chilean tourism, and I believe that some of my contributions are still valid, for example, in the area of sustainability, or with the tourism development plans for each region of Chile, which were initiated during my tenure as Director and have been updated; in other areas, on the contrary, there have been setbacks, for example, when the public-private entity for international tourism promotion created under my initiative in 1993 was dismantled a few years ago.

What do you think are the strengths and weaknesses of tourism in Chile?

The strengths are many, starting with the enormous variety of natural attractions in Chilean territory, most of which are in an excellent state of conservation, followed by the relatively wide range of accommodation and gastronomy, the network of good quality roads and airports in most of the territory, and several other assets. Another strength is the entrepreneurial capacity to initiate, develop and manage tourism projects, which is observed among large, medium and small investors. A weakness is our remoteness from the major tourist source markets, but this also has an advantage if we know how to take advantage of it, and that is that we can better select the market segments we are interested in receiving. Perhaps the greatest weakness is that successive governments, regardless of their ideological orientation, have not yet managed to establish a state policy for tourism that transcends each presidential term and ensures continuity in the various action programmes.

Santiago de Chile

Chile has always been in a situation of "great promise for Latin American tourism". Why do you think Chile is not the leader of Latin American tourism?

The truth is that I find it presumptuous - for Chile and for any country - to pretend to be the "leader" of tourism. Each country has its attractions and each country decides how best to use and develop them. Now, why Chile does not stand out more in the Latin American concert is largely due to the weaknesses pointed out in the previous answer.

In your opinion, what should be the vision of Chile's tourism authorities for the next decade?

As I pointed out above, the vision of the authorities should be oriented towards the definition of a State Policy for Tourism (yes, with capital letters), which should be widely agreed with the different parliamentary benches across the political spectrum, and in whose formulation the private sector, the communities potentially receiving tourists (especially the native peoples), the regional and municipal authorities, the tourism workers and the academic institutions that train them and their possible tourism research centres should participate...

Do you consider the strategies being implemented by the Undersecretary of Tourism to position Chile as a leading tourist destination in Latin America to be adequate?

I have already referred to the concept of "leading tourist destination", which I do not share.

How should we work with regions and local communities to promote domestic tourism?

Domestic tourism has been very vigorous lately as a result of the pandemic. There are many areas of the territory of great beauty that have not yet been incorporated into the tourist offer, as well as craft and gastronomic traditions, local festivities, religious and civil buildings of great heritage value, ancestral agricultural and livestock farming processes, etc. All of these can be put to tourist use to attract the national market in the first place, and eventually the international market if levels of excellence are achieved in the offer. To this end, the owners and/or managers of these assets, the communities living in the vicinity, the respective municipalities and experts in tourism development should be convened to jointly explore the existing opportunities, identify the additional resources needed, and then define short and medium term plans to put such resources to tourism value, defining also the responsibilities of each party involved.

Dear Mr. Yunis, as always a pleasure to know your vision of tourism, and thank you for giving us the opportunity to learn from one of the leading figures of international tourism.

The authors are responsible for the choice and presentation of the facts contained in this document and for the opinions expressed therein, which are not necessarily those of Tourism and Society Think Tank and do not commit the Organization, and should not be attributed to TSTT or its members.

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