Interview with Antonio Santos


Chairman del Tourism and Society Think Tank

We begin this series of interviews to the Members of the Steering Committee of the Tourism and Society Think Tank so that all those members of the TSTT and the general public know who are the people who lead this young institution but which already has almost 100,000 members from 92 countries, and what better to start with its president, Mr. Antonio Santos del Valle.

Antonio Santos del Valle has been working for more than 30 years in the field of culture, education and tourism, starting in 1992 with his contribution to the development, management and promotion of Expo'92, and the opening and closing ceremonies of the Olympic Games in Barcelona (1992). From 1994 to 1996 he was advisor to Minister Carmen Alborch Bataller on cultural issues, heritage and cultural tourism, and began his professional activity in the 'Plataforma Iberoamericana de Cooperación', mainly in Latin American countries and in some European and Arab countries.

From 2010 to 2022 he has been Member of the Board of the Affiliate Members Program of the World Tourism Organization, and of the Panel of Experts of UNWTO, and since 2016 he is director of the Global Shopping Tourism Network and has collaborated in the development of proposals such as the program called "tourist passport, or in the development of a proposal that allows the total digitalization of the tourism industry, without forgetting his great knowledge of everything related to cultural identity and its relationship with tourism and social development.

Dear Mr. Santos, what do you think are the most significant changes that the tourism industry has undergone in recent years?

I think that, since the first years of this century, and already as a trend in the last years of the last century, the transformation and evolution of the industry has been very important with the integration and development of concepts related to innovation, technology, quality, safety, etc.

In this sense, and after the impact of the pandemic, we can analyse the changes from three scenarios: firstly, tourist destinations have seen how differentiation, promotion, quality of services and the construction of a balanced offer are fundamental for the success of local tourism development.

Another scenario is the vision of the citizen living in the tourist destination, who has discovered tourism as a fundamental element for the social, cultural and economic development of his or her community. In a way, tourism has become empowered, it has become valued in those destinations where tourism is fundamental for the development of local society, and the value chain is extensive.

In top destinations such as, for example, Spain, Italy or some in the Caribbean, the closing of borders due to the pandemic, and therefore the lack of international tourists, and even national tourists at times, has given value to the general idea of what tourism is for.

The other factor that I consider very relevant is the fact of technology. In this sense, innovations applied to the tourism industry, both from the point of view of information processing, promotion, information, etc., have become standardised and are immersed in any activity or process related to tourism.

The use of tools that are grouped in tourist destinations under the concept of Smart City and specifically the section on the digitisation of the industry, are formed as a whole that not only allows the relationship between tourist, destination and industry, but also allows a more effective direct and immediate knowledge of the whole tourism event.

The use that tourists make of this technology is basic, since to a greater or lesser extent, tourists use different applications and technological tools in a natural way during their holidays, just as they use them in their day-to-day lives.

After having travelled all over the world, especially in Latin America, what do you think is the current situation of the industry in this continent and in the world in general?

I think that despite the good results in recent months and taking into consideration the situation that is expected in the coming months, the situation is at least uncertain, not only because of the development of the global economic context, but also because of the lack of certainty and the constant uncertainty of "what will happen tomorrow".

I believe that we are living at a time when the managers of tourism companies and the technical and political leaders of international tourism institutions are working in the medium and short term because the current reality is too dynamic, and does not allow us to establish knowledge of the present moment and its temporal evolution, and this leads us to a lack of certainty in many aspects.

In any case, I am not pessimistic, quite the contrary, I am just suggesting caution.

Tourism and leisure are becoming more and more related, some even believe that the word tourism will change. Do you think there will be a new definition of the concept of tourism?

I believe that the word tourism, from a strict point of view, is clearly defined, but I personally believe that the concept of tourism has broadened considerably.

The definition of tourism involves a multitude of actors, perspectives, situations, etc., all of which are determined by reality, innovation and other factors that make the concept and the elements that make up tourism dynamic and the concept is constantly adapting to the reality of the individual and society in general.

In the case of the use of the word leisure in relation to tourism, we must take into consideration that, in general, we schedule our trips, mainly to rest and that this takes place in the so-called holiday times, that is, in the time when professional, social, family, etc. responsibilities are covered and we can devote ourselves to what we need or want to do, such as travelling or enjoying the time we consider for personal use when we travel. For example, when we travel on business, and after work we take the opportunity to get to know and enjoy the tourist destination where we are. In this sense, leisure and tourism are more than related.

As an internationally recognised expert, do you think that supranational institutions are coordinated to provide adequate responses to the tourism industry?

Let me say, it depends. There are institutions that really have a coordinating character of the policies that are developed in different countries and others that really have a simple institutional character, without really intervening in the analysis or in the collaboration of tourism development in tourist destinations.

In any case, I believe that supranational institutions should aim to work jointly and in a balanced way between public institutions and the tourism industry in the tourist destinations they have defined. That is to say, to bring companies and public institutions, not forgetting academic institutions, to the same table, on an equal footing. I believe that universities have a fundamental role to play at any working table.

You are one of the few members who have been with the TSTT since its beginnings, what do you think is the reason for the exponential growth of such a young institution?

I think it is above all the importance of the usefulness of the institution, both for professionals and for the companies and institutions that make it up.

In the current Steering Committee of the Tourism and Society Think Tank, one of the key points of debate is the definition of the TSTT itself, its adaptation to the institutions and the tourism industry, and above all to the needs of professionals working directly and indirectly in tourism.

Another important idea applied by the TSTT is the capacity of responsibility assumed by the members of the institution. In short, they feel involved in the development of tourism, of the institution and of the activities and projects that arise from the Tourism and Society Think Tank or that come to it and that request collaboration for their development.

Given your experience, what is new about the Tourism and Society Think Tank for the tourism industry?

In relation to my previous answer, I think that the most innovative aspect is the way the institution itself works.

The TSTT is not an institution whose main objective is not to be part of it simply for the sake of protocol, as happens in some institutions, where having or using the logo of the institution to which it belongs is the main value.

I think that the day-to-day work of the institution itself, among its members and the relations with other institutions through the TSTT, allows us all to feel useful and also to have responsibilities in the development of projects, and that we can even offer our companies and institutions to the TSTT to develop works, actions or programmes that are beneficial for the institutions and companies that we represent.

Bearing in mind that the TSTT is made up of international experts in different fields, how will this help the tourism industry?

The TSTT is made up of professionals in different fields, who are represented in the Steering Committee of the Institution, and whose results, proposals, recommendations, etc., are formulated by experts with a long professional career and, above all, with experience in different realities, and many of them can be applied or taken into consideration for the different realities and needs of the tourism industry and institutions.

Do you consider that the pandemic has introduced changes in the behaviour of tourists and travellers, or has everything remained relatively unchanged after the lifting of travel restrictions?

First, we have all seen how after the lifting of the travel restrictions we had during the pandemic, tourism data quickly returned to pre-pandemic levels and in many cases were more positive, with steady growth. This idea translates into the importance of tourist activity, and, above all, that we like to travel and enjoy everything that derives from tourism.

That said, what has been detected is that tourists are much more aware of the importance of tourism, and of respect for the culture, environment, sustainability, etc., of destinations, and above all of the idea that when we travel we are part of the social development of the tourist destinations that host us.

Let's talk about the current situation, where is the tourism industry heading?

I believe that one of the most significant points is the increasingly important and clear specialisation. The introduction and use of technology at different times and stages has become so standardised that it has become commonplace, as evidenced by the use of tools for the digitisation of the industry, which has become basic to its development.

And finally, the awareness of the sustainable development of the industry itself, which must be balanced with the needs and identity of the territory where it is developed.

How do you see the digitalization of the tourism industry taking place?

When we talk about digitalization, I think it is necessary to understand what this concept means and how it can be applied in a tourist destination.

I think that some are making important efforts to apply this digitalization and that others have not yet understood the need to apply it, and the role it has as a driving force for the development of the industry and of the host society itself.

In any case, as in other aspects of the application of technology and innovation, destinations that apply it in the most practical and successful way will take advantage over others that have not yet understood the importance of the digitalization of the tourism industry.

As an expert in Shopping Tourism, what do you think is the current state of Shopping Tourism?

Shopping tourism has been one of the types of tourism most affected by the pandemic both from the point of view of shopping tourism for transnational products, i.e. brands or products that can be found the same or similar in any country in the world, as well as products aligned with the cultural identity of a particular destination.

In any case, we must always differentiate that shopping tourism is one thing and the purchases made by tourists and their spending is another.

On an international level, obviously the closing of borders in countries such as China or the Russian market, together with the consequences of international conflicts, have meant that the cut in the flow of tourists from these countries with a high spending capacity has had a significant effect on the results of this type of tourism.

In other cases, the differentiation of the tourist offer based on the value of products of the cultural identity of the tourist destination, has meant that tourists seek to buy products with a high degree of personalisation, aligned with the local identity and whose experience at the moment of purchase becomes unique.

Can you talk to me about Shopping Tourism and its relationship with craftsmanship, which is so fashionable at the moment?

As I was saying a moment ago, the crafts that can be found in tourist destinations must be closely integrated into the tourist offer.

The purchase of craft products by tourists is an activity that allows not only economic development but also the enhancement of the value of these craft products and also of the producer.

Tourists always look for and trust in the authenticity of the product. Therefore, it is important to apply tools that assure tourists that the product is made in the tourist destination and therefore there is the certainty that what they are buying is authentic, and not simply an industrial product, which in some cases is not even made in the same tourist destination where it can be found.

Tourism, culture, society, economy, are closely related issues. How can professionals work in a balanced way with all the issues derived from these topics?

As you rightly said, industry professionals.

These professionals are aware that they must work with sufficient knowledge of the industry and of the society where they work or for which they work and which allows their personal development and that of the community.

The sustainability of tourist destinations over time is closely linked to the ability of professionals in the tourism industry and public institutions to enhance the value of the tourist destination itself and to constantly improve the quality of life of the citizens who welcome the traveller for a period of time.

It is a win-win relationship.

And the famous and much-used concept of sustainability, what is it really about and how much of a concept that sometimes seems empty?

Indeed, in some cases the concept of sustainability is a concept that some people use without being very aware of all that this concept contains, as well as of the points and derivatives of its application.

In any case, what is important is that the use of the concept itself has discovered in many aspects the importance of tourism as an activity for social development, the preservation of the environment and other important factors that are fully aligned with the Sustainable Development Goals approved in the main international forums.

Dear Mr. Santos, we thank you for your time, kindness and we hope that the Tourist and Society Think Tank will continue in this progression that is astonishing everyone.

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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