Inside the WTM London @ 40

Front view of World Travel Market located in Excel, East London, United Kingdom

For four decades, the World Travel Market has become a rendezvous for over 200 countries every year. As the largest travel expo in the world, it has helped to build many tourism businesses. Funke Olaode, who participated in the recent three-day expo held in Excel, East London, United Kingdom, finds out how the WTM has fared.

World Travel Market came to being 40 years ago when it held its first exhibition in 1979. And over the last 40 years, the WTM which is usually organized in London, United Kingdom has remained a melting point for over 200 countries, welcoming 51,500 senior travel industry professionals, government ministers, and international media who visit Excel-London every November, thereby generating around £4 billion of travel industry contacts.

The expansive exhibition center in Excel, Custom House in East London has become a mecca of sorts for tour operators, travels experts, and hospitality industry from around the world as they jostle for attention from visitors to catch a glimpse of what they can offer in their various countries.

From November 4 to 6, 2019, the world again converged on the British soil to rub minds together on how to take advantage of the platform and at the same time proffer the way forward for tourism and travels across the world as many nations prepare to diversify.

The 2019 exhibition was special as it marked the four decades of its establishment. In what one could tag a show of spectacular, various countries tried to outdo themselves with their breathtaking pavilions. Not knowing to things in half measure, the gulf country such as Saudi Arabia showcased one of the best pavilions while the Emirate and middle east consists of Dubai, Abu Dhabi, Oman, Jordan were on ground to treat the visitors to their hospitality as they offer goodies in different forms to visitors who had a brief stop at their domain. Their damsels were beauties to behold as they all dressed up in their various traditional attires. And of course, countries like the United States, Middle East, Asia, and Africa also put up electrifying pavilions.

How has WTM fared in the last 40 years? Has WTM lived up to expectations? To some experts, it has as many countries have continued to embrace tourism as the next cash cow to boost their GDP.

While some embark on advertisements in local and international media to showcase their tourism potential, the impact of this annual expo in using tourism as a vehicle to boost the nation’s economy cannot be over-emphasized as it brings face-to-face representatives of various countries and prospective tourists.

For instance, in a recent report, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) with its famed Abu Dhabi and Dubai sits atop over 93 billion barrels of crude oil. But as it stands today, the country has since put oil aside and embrace tourism is its cash cow.

With its less than six million population and a GDP per capita predicted to rise by 22 percent to just $75 in a few years’ time, Dubai, a city of superlatives, pristine beaches and an interesting mix of indoor and outdoor entertainments, has in the last few years been playing host to thousands of visitors from all over the world. Dubai’s ambition to become the world’s most visited city is obvious.
Tourism is an important part of the Dubai government’s strategy to maintain the flow of foreign cash into the emirate. As of 2013, Dubai was the fourth most visited city of the world based on air traffic and the fastest-growing, increasing by a 10.7 percent. Dubai attracts at least 14 million tourists in 2015. And by the end of 2015, the country’s gross domestic product stood at $340.8 billion. Towards the end of 2018, Dubai welcomed its 1 billion visitors to her domain. This feat was celebrated.

Another example of a nation that has shifted focus beyond oil and embrace tourism fully is Turkey. Istanbul welcomes thousands of visitors daily. Turkey is a nation straddling Eastern Europe and Western Asia with cultural connections to ancient Greek, Persian, Roman, Byzantine, and Ottoman empires. Cosmopolitan Istanbul, on the Bosporus Strait, is home to the iconic Hagia Sophia, with its soaring dome and Christian mosaics, the massive 17th-century Blue Mosque and the 1460 Topkapı Palace – the former home of sultans.

During this reporter’s visit to the ancient city in 2015, a tour guide at Hagia Sophia Mosque explained that an average 3,000 visitors converge at the iconic site daily at $10 per head.

About three years ago, Barbados celebrates its 50 years of independence. The Island was one of the first European colonies in the Caribbean that broke from the British rule on November 30, 1966. The last five decades have seen its tourism industry rise to overtake sugar production as the Island’s major source of income.

The countries such as the Middle East, the Caribbean, and godfathers of destinations: the UK, the United States, Germany, even South Africa and Kenya have continued to position themselves as tourists’ havens and are raking multimillion dollars.

In recent times, Ethiopia, Rwanda Tanzania, Kenya, and The Gambia have demonstrated how lucrative travels and tourism are. The Gambia, with a population of about 1.849 million as of 2013 and over 30 top tourist attractions receives over 100,000 visitors a year and its tourism industry is the second-highest earner of foreign revenue.

In spite of domestic challenges back home, Kenya, Uganda, and Rwanda have not failed to take advantage of the WTM. The trio marketed themselves as a single destination for the first time at a joint stand during 2017 WTM London under the banner, “Borderless Borders, One Destination.” The single East Africa Tourist Visa, recently launched, enables travelers to visit Kenya, Uganda, and Rwanda under one visa.

South Africa is a popular tourist destination and the industry accounts for a substantial amount of the country’s revenue. According to the World Travel and Tourism Council, the tourism industry directly contributed ZAR 102 billion to South African GDP in 2012 and supports 10.3 percent of jobs in the country. Another important source of revenue is domestic tourism, which contributes 52 percent of total tourism consumption. The number of tourists that throng South Africa also reached the ten million mark in 2014.

However, West Africa still appears to lag behind and even below the average growth rate of tourism development in the Continent.

Commenting on how WTM, London has impacted professionals as well as stakeholders, Lagos based travels and aviation expert, Mr. Wole Shadare commended the visionary leadership of the WTM.

“The Exhibition Centre is a massive edifice that attracts common interests. It is an avenue for stakeholders to keep up with the latest insights on travel. WTM London, the leading global event for the travel industry, is the must-attend four day business to business exhibition for the worldwide travel and tourism industry. For 40 years, the world’s largest travel trade show has performed creditably well and lived up to expectations. Year in year out, exhibitors from more than 200 countries pack into Excel London to conduct close to £4b deals that shape the future of travel.”

On the failure of Nigeria to register its presence over the last five years, Shadare said it has raised a lot of concern. “For five years running, the ability of Nigeria to take part in yearly World Travel Market in London and other places has raised a great concern of how the country has not taken the opportunity to market Nigeria vast tourism potentials. Not a few are surprised that the Federal or states government are not marketing Nigeria to the world like Egypt, South Africa, Rwanda, and Morocco are doing. This is a huge mistake because we could have used the opportunity to sell Nigeria to the outside world.”

On how the platform has become his source of knowledge, initiator of Akwaaba Travels and Tourism and publisher of Travellers Magazine, Nkechi Uko, said WTM over the years had served as his personal training school.

Going down memory lane, Uko said, Nigeria made its maiden appearance sometimes in 1998 when British Airways took Four Nigerian Travel Agents Members of NANTA to London when the expo was still being held at Olympia. And over the years, it has become a pilgrimage for travel experts to strike a multi-million deals while many countries are using tourism to drive their economy.”

As the world embraced tourism as an alternative source of income, unfortunately, Nigeria has taken a step backward over the last five years shying away from several attractive sites scattered across its 36 states. The question still remains. Will Nigeria reclaims her place among the comity of African nations in the coming years ahead? Only time will tell.

As the WTM enters its fifth decade, many hope it will keep the tempo going as many nations have come to see great potential in tourism, travels, and hospitality.