"Tourism can be a door opener and can help to break down prejudices. The boycotting of certain destinations will harm the affected people living in the destinations. We believe in dialogue instead"
Rika Jean-François holds a Master Degree in Social Anthropology and Iranian Studies with an expertise on ethnic identities, sustainable development and diversity issues from the Free University of Berlin, Germany. She started to work in tourism as a tour guide in Greece, while studying at the University of Crete and as an incoming agent in Athens. Back in Germany she was a counsellor at the University’s International Academic Exchange Office and travelled as a researcher to Iran, Malawi and Haiti. Ms Jean-François obtained an additional qualification in Quality Management, working on the evaluation of development aid workers' education for the German Development Service (DED). Since 2004 she has been with Messe Berlin and vitally developed ITB’s Corporate Social Responsibility. As ITB’s head of CSR, she is a passionate speaker at sustainable tourism events internationally. Putting an emphasis on human rights and diversity, she has spearheaded ITB’s implementation of the LGBT travel segment and was a member of the board of directors of the International Gay & Lesbian Travel Association (IGLTA) for 5 consecutive years. Currently she serves on the board of the IGLTA Foundation. She is also a board member of the Global Sustainable Tourism Council (GSTC) and of PATA (Pacific Asian Travel Association), supports many international sustainability committees and is a jury member at several global responsible tourism contests. At ITB, Ms Jean-François is also heading business relations in India and the Medical Tourism segment and has the overall responsibility for ITB’s official Partner Country program. We interviewed Ms Jean-François on the occasion of the GSTC2019 Global Conference in the Azores in December 2019 where she participated in a panel discussing "Marketing sustainability and influencing travelers' preferences".
Ecoclub: Even though German is not widely spoken around the world, ITB Berlin has arguably become the world's most important tourism expo. What is its unique selling point and the main ingredients of its success and endurance over the years?
Rika Jean-François: The German language might not be spoken widely but the German tourism source market is quite wooed and important and Berlin is internationally well-connected. The ITB fair has grown constantly since its foundation 54 years ago. Meanwhile, ITB Berlin is a firmly established event and the world’s largest travel trade show, which every year is attended by 10,000 exhibitors and some 160,000 visitors. We do not only sell square meters to exhibitors but look at global tourism from many angles. Tourism is an important contribution to intercultural dialogue – not only does travel broaden tourists’ horizons, but people in the destinations benefit from meeting other cultures, too. The ITB Berlin Convention, which runs in parallel with the show, represents the tourism industry’s most important think tank. Both the trade show and the convention focus on many CSR-related issues. Additionally, ITB is present with all sorts of site events all through the year and is actively involved in many industry activities.
Ecoclub: Last autumn we saw one more collapse of a major package holiday tour operator-airline. It was attributed to various factors but most suspect that key nails in the coffin were online travel agencies (OTAs), sharing economy providers and direct selling. Have these factors influenced ITB Berlin's model and in what ways?
Rika Jean-François: There is no doubt that these three factors are affecting the industry. As the world’s largest travel trade show, we naturally represent all parts of the sector. Our exhibitors include traditional enterprises as well as new players, startups, internet operators and sharing economy specialists. Trends and the industry’s future are being discussed at our platform. We have always been very adaptive.
Ecoclub: It seems, and it is very refreshing, that each year ITB is becoming more political, greener and socially responsible. Is there any serious opposition from the conservative tourism 'establishment'?
Rika Jean-François: Not really, as nobody can turn the world backwards and especially now, that climate change cannot be denied anymore, everybody is rather trying to jump on the train than opposing.
Ecoclub: Where may this trend lead us in your view?
Rika Jean-François: It can only help us bring sustainable thinking into main-stream tourism, even if there will be more greenwashing for some time but in the end, business professionals will understand that there is no other way for them to survive. We all have to take climate change seriously. We will have to cooperate globally and on all levels if we still want to have a chance to save the planet. That means, we need to rethink tourism, the way we do tourism!
Ecoclub: Do you wish to see more Academia involved in Travel Fairs? Are you satisfied with the level of engagement and dialogue between business and academia at ITB and other major events?
Rika Jean-François: At ITB, we have high-level university speakers from all over the world, we also have a special students' platform in one of our halls and we support events in cooperation with the universities, like the Entrepreneurship Summit at Berlin's Free University. I am a strong defender of having fruitful connections between tourism and Academia - we all need reliable research!
Ecoclub: What is your view of online conferences, and of holding fully fledged parallel online conferences to major events such as ITB Berlin, as a response to the Climate Crisis? Would it hurt or benefit the conference business model?
Rika Jean-François: Sometimes an online conference can substitute an on-site meeting - but personal networking is still key - and it is necessary to build trust, to brainstorm. Very often, brilliant ideas arise when you spend face-to-face time with your industry peers. To sell a destination you need to see, feel and experience it.
Ecoclub: We note that you have a Master's in Social Anthropology and Iranian Studies, probably a rare trait for someone in the higher echelons of the tourism industry, so we cannot resist asking you about your views on the Iranian tourism model, and how/if it can help create bridges with the West.
Rika Jean-François: I won't talk politics but Iran definitively is on the tourism map - it has much to offer, travellers come back and are deeply impressed, especially by the extraordinary hospitality of the people. I believe that tourism can open doors!
Ecoclub: You also have a first-hand experience of the Greek tourism sector, as a Tour Guide & Incoming Agent in Greece. If you were asked (and one hopes you have been) by the new Tourism Minister to recommend three things that definitely need fixing, which ones would they be?
Rika Jean-François: We definitively have to stop to focus mainly on growth and numbers, overtourism is becoming a serious problem also in some regions of Greece. Sustainable tourism plans and strategies seem to exist but they are not efficiently implemented yet. This needs to be done as soon as possible. As part of it, Greece also needs to face certain climate-related problems which will be a threat to Greek tourism, like increasing water shortage and risks of forest fires, etc.
Ecoclub: You are actively involved with the LGTB Travel segment/movement. Is real progress being made in 'western' destinations or are tourism providers just paying lip service to diversity?
Rika Jean-François: There has indeed a lot of real progress been made but even in western countries nothing can be taken for granted, it's always fragile... But LGBT+ travellers can identify very well who is taking the cause seriously and who is trying to "pinkwash".
Ecoclub: And how can local prejudice be circumvented or diminished in destinations where there are legal, religious and cultural obstacles to accepting LGBT+ travellers?
Rika Jean-François: As said before, tourism can be a door opener and can help to break down prejudices. The boycotting of certain destinations will harm the affected people living in the destinations. We believe in dialogue instead. It's a human rights issue and we need to advocate human rights in tourism, everywhere.
Ecoclub: Thank you so much for your time. A final question: what key advice would you give to young people that want to follow your career path?
Rika Jean-François: Create your own niche - network as much as you can - never be too shy to speak to "high level" people - and most important of all: