ABU DHABI // The UAE won praise from Bill Clinton yesterday for its long-term plan to diversify the economy into tourism, education and renewable energy.
"The UAE has done a good job with something a lot of people can't handle," the former US president said. "Poverty is a bigger problem than wealth, but in history just as many have squandered their wealth than have failed to create opportunities from their poverty. They squander it and do stupid things.
"The thing that has impressed me here is the unusually high number of well educated, serious people who think all the time about where they want to be in five years, in 10 years; how to make the most of their good fortune by diversifying their wealth; what the challenges are; and expanding their outreach and not being contained … but by opening to the rest of the world."
Mr Clinton was addressing about 1,000 delegates at the World Travel and Tourism Council summit. It is his ninth trip to the UAE since leaving office in 2001.
Since then he has worked as the UN special envoy in Haiti and founded the William J Clinton Foundation to address inequalities.
"The history of the 21st century has not yet been written," he told the audience.
"If we have more travel and tourism … it will enevitably create opportunities for you in the industry to create jobs for others and reduce global inequality," Mr Clinton said.
He said the industry was well placed to devise economically attractive ways to save the environment.
"I predict that over the next 20 years the travel and tourism industry will lead a re-examination of our energy industry policies. The fact that you have such a great stake in a global stable environment gives you enormous credibility."
Mr Clinton drew on his experiences in Haiti in his speech. The country is the poorest in the Caribbean. Even before 2010, when it was devastated by an earthquake, 70 per cent of the population had a per capita income of less than $2 a day and only 54 per cent of school-age children attended school.
"It was clear to anyone who looks at the country that part of its rebuilding must be developing the capacity for travel and tourism," he said.
The former president last year took a tourist trade delegation to Haiti to encourage investment there. The Marriott group is now building a hotel in Port-au-Prince, Haiti's capital. David Scowsill, president and chief executive of the WTTC, also accompanied Mr Clinton on a trip last year to inaugurate a new industrial park in the north of the country.
Mr Clinton said the travel and tourism industry had an "enormous opportunity to build the economy of poor places" by using local suppliers.
"In Colombia, we met a group of women who had been literally blown out of their native villages and resettled along a river to grow spices," Mr Clinton said.
"They decided to make Colombia the centre of organic spices, so the Foundation reorganised their marketing and got hotels to use their products and market them, and we quadrupled their income. If you do that, it embeds the industry in the local community and builds support that is more human than political."
Mr Clinton also spoke about his work as US president to promote peace in the Balkans and in the Middle East.
"What I have seen is that peace works better than conflict and one of the best manifestations of that is travel and tourism," he said. He told the audience how international tourism had jumped 650 per cent in one seaside town in Montenegro in the five years after peace in the Balkans took hold. He said he told Palestinian and Israeli leaders when he was involved in the peace process that Jerusalem had the potential to be the most visited city in the world.