Roundtable Human Rights in Tourism

Platform and driving force for the implementation of corporate responsibility

Antje Monshausen

Non-governmental organisations and tour operators in the German-speaking area have joined forces and founded the "Roundtable Human Rights in Tourism" in order to develop concepts about how tourism businesses can fulfil their responsibility of respecting human rights. The members want to acquire and exchange practical experiences and make diligence of human rights the standard in the tourist industry.

Based on the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights and the experiences gained from the organisation of events, a management concept on Due Diligence on Human Rights for businesses has been developed. In addition, the "Commitment on Human Rights in Tourism" is a self-commitment of tour operators publicly acknowledging their responsibility, and there is also an implementation guideline and a practical training tool. At the tourism fair ITB (Internationale Tourismusbörse) in March 2014 in Berlin, these materials are presented to the international public for the first time.

Cooperation makes things easier

Human rights in tourism are not a new issue. NGOs have long been criticising the fact that human rights are violated time and again in the name of tourism. In 2011, the study "Putting Tourism to Rights" compiled the observations of civil society organisations and systematised them on the basis of the international human rights framework. Based on this, Tourism Watch together with akte - Working Group on Tourism and Development and other organisations around the world elaborated specific demands and recommendations to politics, economy and society.

The tourism operators Kuoni Travel and Studiosus were the first to tackle this challenge and developed a human rights policy which they implement step by step in their businesses. One and a half years ago, representatives of various organisations and the two tour operators got together and brought the "Roundtable Human Rights in Tourism" into being.

"The universal human rights are the framework for socially responsible and sustainable tourism development" says Peter-Mario Kubsch (Studiosus). "This is why it was important for us right from the start that the roundtable be an open and multinational platform for all actors in tourism. Only joint and international initiatives can be successful and bring the competitive neutrality which is so important in this issue."

The initiative was met with great interest by persons responsible in tourism and politics. Five more tour operators and the umbrella organisation "Forum anders reisen e.V." have become members of the Roundtable in the meantime and actively champion respect of human rights. Big travel (agency) organisations from Germany, Switzerland and Great Britain are guest participants in the discussions of the Roundtable and also relevant ministries have indicated their interest in cooperation.

The participating tour operators that signed the "Commitment on Human Rights in Tourism" agree: Human rights responsibility requires taking actions in one's own business. But many things can only be tackled together. "It is obvious that as tour operators, we are responsible for the implementation of human rights strategies in our own businesses as well as for the cooperation with our contracting partners" says Petra Thomas, product manager of "a&e erlebnis:reisen" and chairwoman of Forum anders reisen. She continues: "For example in assessing the human-rights situation in destinations or in the development of complaints mechanisms we need cross-company cooperation, exchange of information and joint standards".

Human rights responsibility pays off

Whether due to the awareness of clients, investors or critical media - businesses are increasingly confronted with the question of how they can respect human rights when carrying out their business activities. However, it's not only external factors that incite businesses to consequently implement human rights strategies within their businesses. Matthias Leisinger (Kuoni) emphasises that it also brings concrete benefits for the business: "When staff in our business or in a hotel are treated fairly, the quality of service is better and thus, also client satisfaction is." In order that there is economic gain, the entire sector needs to act the same way.
Support from state and non-governmental institutions in the countries of origin and tourist destinations is also crucial. "We need to prevent businesses that consciously accept human rights violation from having an advantage in competition" says Miriam Schaper from Hamburg Foundation for Business Ethics, a founding member of the Roundtable.

The first steps

For many businesses in the tourist industry, it no longer matters whether but rather how they address their human rights responsibility. In most cases, the first step is not as difficult as imagined. "We didn't have to start from scratch" says Thomas Bohlander (Gebeco). "The human rights framework systematises and develops what we already touched upon in our CSR commitment." The tour operators "One world - Reisen mit Sinnen" and Viventura share this opinion and have committed to their responsibility half a year ago. They now introduce human rights diligence in their businesses. Elke Schnaus (Hauser Exkursionen) provides a specific example: "Specialised on hiking tours, we already cared about the porter's equipment e.g. in Nepal and Peru 40 years ago. When systematising our human rights policy, we embedded this responsibility in our porters policy which applies to all our agencies around the world. We are pleased to make this knowledge available to other tourism businesses and to elaborate more standards together."

Exchange is very important and putting emphasis on practical experiences is a clear priority of the Roundtable in the coming years. Three tools to implement the UN guiding principles The Roundtable developed a "Commitment" which defines commitment and related fields of action of the tour operators - aiming at the entire sector to act in the same way. The know-how of all members of the Roundtable enabled the elaboration of a handy management guideline with clear examples and simple checklists, thus making the implementation of self-commitment within the business feasible.

Additionally, an online training was developed which can be used for training courses within businesses. The implementation guideline and the online training are available free of charge. The fact that those materials are available in English too - as of now, except the online training - is an important factor to spread information about the initiative in transnational tourism industry. According to the human rights expert Michael Windfuhr, deputy director of the German Institute for Human Rights, the initiative is pathbreaking for the implementation of the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights. Practical advice helps to start implementing right away.

Politics also needs to be involved

The Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights don't only regulate corporate responsibility to respect human rights but also state duties to protect human rights in economic development. "We especially need to reinforce local structures on site in order to support victims of human rights violations. We need to adopt and effectively implement legislation to protect human dignity", demands Andreas Zotz (Naturefriends International). And it's also in sending countries, where many tour operators are located, that regulations need to be adopted and enforced. "Rights for People, Rules for Business!" is what civil-society groups all over Europe demand.

"So far, the German Federal Government and most of the other European governments have unfortunately neglected to develop national action plans to implement the UN guiding principles", says Antje Monshausen (Tourism Watch - Bread for the World). "Implementing human rights diligence must not remain part of voluntary corporate responsibility for ever. It needs to become the condition for all entrepreneurial activity." Christine Plüss (akte - Working Group Tourism and Development) adds: "The Roundtable shows how committed tour operators can effectively embrace their human rights diligence. However, it has also shown where we need national guidelines. Clear regulations on the responsibility to protect, compliance and reporting as well as on complaints procedures are the prerequisite for all businesses to have equal opportunities, look for cooperation and for respect of human rights to really become the standard."

"We want to set out on the way" once was the result of the first discussion on human rights in tourism, which took place in February 2013 with broad participation of the tourism industry. Now is the time to go on together. The Roundtable Human Rights in Tourism is a multi-stakeholder initiative and considers itself an open platform. All institutionalised actors that subscribe to the principles of the Roundtable are welcome to participate. The prerequisite for membership is to sign the "Commitment on Human Rights in Tourism".

Current members: a&e erlebnis:reisen, Arbeitskreis Tourismus und Entwicklung (Working Group on Tourism and Development), Global Compact Network Germany, Forum anders reisen e.V., Gebeco, Hamburg Foundation for Business Ethics, Hauser Exkursionen, Kate - ecology & development, Kuoni Travel, One World, Naturefriends International, Studiosus, TourCert, Bread for the World - Tourism Watch, viventura.

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