Geopolitics and Exotica at the World Travel Market in London

Now for a little detour from the grimy streets of Paris, to the vast halls of the ExCeL exhibition centre in London Docklands, where I attended the World Travel Market (WTM) last week for my new job. WTM is an absolute madhouse of speed dealing and wheeling, yet I found some time to conduct some ersatz ethnology and see how geopolitics plays out in what is the main event for the travel and tourist industry.


The World Travel Market (WTM) brings together more than 50,000 travel industry professionals every year for four days to exhibit, network and conduct key business deals, often à l’ancienne with just a handshake. At first I was a bit disappointed at the coldness and impersonality of the exhibitions – giant flashy pavilions are set up by tourism authorities and tour companies to showcase countries and regions.

It is in the myriad of make-shift offices, strategically scattered around the pavilions (see photo), that the real business happens at WTM. After all, the event is for industry professionals – not travelers.

But I couldn’t help but wonder how geopolitics played out at the event, which represents one of the largest industries in the world. According to the World Travel and Tourism Council, the  industry employs approximately 220 million people and generates over 9.4 per cent of world GDP. Would they drop border disputes and ethnic conflicts in the name of good-natured economic competition?

It seems business was the rule and conflict was the exception, yet a careful examination unearthed some items of interest. Continuing with this blog’s focus on quirky and little-known ethnic subcultures, I was able to find some tourist stands for self-declared states and disputed regions. And with a little investigation, we found some fun examples of how politics seemed to play a role in the strategic placement of certain expositions.

The scoop this year among journalists was the participation of Iraq – I looked in vain for their exposition. I did meet their tourism officials at a cocktail reception and they were the life of the party. The Iranians had a harder time getting to WTM.

Other observations of a distinctly geopolitical or anthropological interest:



I got my favorite tote bag from Kosovo, which declared independence from Serbia on February 17, 2008 and got its CIA Factbook entry ten days later. Kosovo’s statehood has been recognized by the US and most EU states, save Serbia’s orthodox buddy-state Greece and a few others. From the former Soviet Union, only the three Baltic countries have recognized Kosovo. In the name of avoiding conflict, I respectfully put my Kosovo bag away when passing through country pavilions of those hostile to Kosovar independence. I just liked the bag and the following brochure, thats all:


Pavillon Diplomacy – The Chinas

I also set out to see how the WTM dealt with complicated territorial issues, as countries are more or less set up by region and geographic location. Solution for the China-Taiwan problem – put Taiwan next to Mongolia, far from the China exposition:



I also noted that Israel’s exhibition was not located in the Middle East region next to the pavilions of its geographic neighbors, Syria, Lebanon, Jordan and Egypt. Instead, Israel’s exhibit was in “Europe – Mediterranean.” Ok… If it makes everyone happy I guess.

The UEFA Champions League also considers Israel European. So close but so far…

Ethiopia and Eritrea

Relations have been iffy between Ethiopia and Eritrea since the 1998-2000 border conflict, which the international media described as a “war between two of the world’s poorest nations.” The war cost each side thousands of lives and occasional artillery duels still flare up across the border. While we were at WTM Ethiopia accused Eritrea of supporting a rebel uprising in its Ogaden region. All seemed calm at the WTM in London though.


I was really excited about this one – Nagorno-Karabakh isn’t even an internationally recognized state. Its actually a de facto “independent republic” located in Azerbaijan.

After the Soviet Union broke up in 1991, a “frozen” ethnic conflict in the South Caucasus thawed into full-blown war between Armenia and Azerbaijan over Karabakh, an Armenian ethnic enclave nestled in the mountains of Western Azerbaijan. After a three-year war, Armenia gained control and an independent “Armenian” republic was set up. I was in Armenia in 1999 and couldn’t find a ride along the one road connecting Armenia with Nagorno-Karabak, the “Lachin Corridor.”

Oh well, ten years later I got to peruse the Karabakh tourist stand in WTM and check out pamphlets for new luxury hotels in Stepanakert, the republic’s once heavily bombed-out but now rebuilt capital.

North Cyprus

Another de facto independent republic, North Cyprus is only diplomatically recognized by Turkey, after they invaded the northern part of the island in 1974. The island of Cyprus is now a member of the European Union and most of the international community recognizes its sovereignty over the self-proclaimed “Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus.” Just details I suppose for the average tourist. The violence has died down and the beaches are nice, even if you can’t really figure out in what country/autonomous republic you are actually sunning yourself.

[In their recent Berlin Wall anniversary issue, Le Monde called Nicosia, the divided capital of Cyrpus, the site of the “last wall” in Europe. For some reason I found that article really simplistic, but it could just be me.]


Further down the de facto tourism route, I couldn’t help but linger around the Georgia exposition. I found it ironic that a country as beautiful and culturally rich as Georgia has such a bad tourist-reputation these days. Georgia =  wine, food, cute seaside towns, polyphonic singing, mountains, the world’s longest toasts (the average is over three minutes long).  Its doubly ironic when you consider the fact that Georgia was thought of as the “resort republic” of the Soviet Union.

In 1992 the region of Abkhazia broke away from Georgia proper after war and ethnic cleansing/population transfers occurred on both sides. Yet before the the breakup of the Soviet Union Abkhazia was dotted with popular seaside resorts .

The self-proclaimed “autonomous region” of South Ossetia also fought a separatist war with Georgia in 1991-92. A flare-up of hostilities there was one of the causes of the Russian-Georgian war last summer. As part of the totally intense geopolitical situation in the Caucasus, Russia has sided with both Abhkazia and South Ossetia against “pro-Western” Georgia.

Suffice to say, with so many breakaway regions, Georgia’s tourist map was pretty much messed up – I guess they get points for being honest:

Its a little hard to make out, but on the legend they’ve marked capitals, capitals of autonomous republics and three types of internal borders, including a red one with the disclaimer “at the time of printing these regions are not under the control of the central government. Thus, travelling to these regions is not advisable.” Again, BIG points for honesty.

I do wish Georgia luck in getting back the tourists, although they probably won’t be getting back those autonomous regions anytime soon. It really is an amazing country, and I’m not just saying that because I love polyphony and long-winded toasts.




A little bit of action, quand meme. On the last day of the WTM, a group of protestors from the “Burma Campaign UK”  showed up in front of the exposition entrance. Brandishing signs criticizing Burma’s military dictatorship, they were protesting international tourism in Burma and the foreign bucks they claim supports the military junta. According to them, Nobel Peace Laureate Aung San Suu Kyi – lauded around the world for her peace activism – has actually asked that tourists not visit Burma.

The protestors spent the better part of the day just standing twenty feet or so from the entrance – they were quite peaceful, no slogans or hooting. The hordes of  chain-smoking, deal-making expo participants gabbing in their cellphones took little notice. Business first:


On to some amateur ethnology. Not much to report – this wasn’t an event for anthropologists, but I did find some rootsy things among the multi-media/interactive exhibition stands. Some panamanian accordion music, Afro-Columbian dance, Argentinean tango.. I ran out of time and camera batteries though. Managed a little field recording though:

Like this Carpathian string band from Western Slovakia:

By the way, Slovakia’s tourism slogan was “Little Big County” and brochures heralded its capital Bratislava as the “Detroit of Europe.” Genius. I miss Central Europe. [by the way, Slovakia is really the Michigan of Europe. Automobile production represents 26% of its industrial output and 30% of its imports. A strong automative industry has helped Slovakia earn the name “The Tatra Tiger.]