Update: 11.12.2013

Human rights in tourism: sector successfully launches self-regulation

Since tourism ranks amongst the biggest economic sectors worldwide, enterprises in the travel industry carry special responsibility in the field of human rights. In addition, this economic field is only minimally regulated. The Swiss Working Group on Tourism and Development (akte) and the German organisation Tourism Watch have therefore sought contact with industry representatives. Within a year, the Swiss Kuoni Group and six German companies agreed to participate in a round table discussion on the topic. Together they developed and signed an agreement laying out the responsibilities of transnational companies in the travel industry.

The issue

The main focus is put on the working and living conditions in the holiday destinations. Staff in hotels, guides or taxi drivers frequently depend completely on the income earned in the tourism sector, but they do not receive a stable income, are badly paid and do not have the necessary resources in case of an emergency. According to the ILO, another alarming problem is the number of children employed in the tourism industry.

Not only the employees of tourism companies have rights that must be respected, but also the workforce of suppliers as well as the people living in the tourist area. The right to an adequate means of subsistence, decent work, health, food and the protection from discrimination are at the centre of the round table initiative.

«Human rights in tourism» round table

About a year ago, in 2012, the two travel agencies Kuoni and Studiosus joined various representatives of NGOs at a round table dicussion. Their aim is to make known and implement the guiding principles for the economy and human rights in tourism that were prepared by the UN Special Representative John Ruggie and adopted by the General Assembly of the United Nations.

According to akte, the industry’s interest in the round table discussion was immense. Five more travel agencies and one umbrella organisation joined the group. The big Swiss, German and Austrian travel agency associations all reacted positively and participated in the round table meetings.

It was Kuoni and Studiosus that took the first steps towards the implementation of the UN guiding principles. Their expert knowledge formed the basis for the development of three sector-specific tools. One of these tools is a «pre-agreed commitment covering the involvement of the travel industry and the fields of action linked thereto». In addition, a succinct management manual was created «in order to facilitate the introduction of social responsibility on a corporate level thanks to significant examples and simple checklists». In the end, akte created the content of an online education tool for the implementation of the UN guiding principles.

A first important step

In October 2013, the organisers of the round table announced a first major success. During a round table meeting in Munich on 7 October 2013, the following eight enterprises in the Swiss and German travel business have signed a «commitment to human rights in tourism»: Kuoni, Studiosus, a&e erlebnis:reisen, Gebeco, Hauser Exkursionen, ONE WORLD, viventura as well as forum anders reisen (an association for sustainable tourism).

In their commitment, the companies agree to develop a human rights strategy and to apply it consistently in their business processes and in the cooperation with business partners and suppliers. The signatory enterprises respect the UN human rights agreements and the ILO core labour standards as legally binding. The commitment also declares that the enterprises want to systematically record all effects of their actions on human rights. Furthermore a complaints mechanism will be developed in order to be able to rectify violations appropriately and within reasonable time.

This is an «important sign by the sector, a first step towards putting corporate responsibility into the internationally binding framework of human rights and taking on a duty of diligence with respect to human rights», as akte puts it on its website. It also hopes that further relevant players in the travel business will use the initiative as an incentive towards a common business standard, letting their own enterprise profit from the exchange of views.


The travel business’s willingness to self-regulate is remarkably positive – especially since Kuoni, one of the key players on the Swiss travel market, participate in a pioneering role. Unfortunately, self-regulatory policies can only be witnessed in German-speaking countries at the moment, but it is planned to extend this initiative at an international level, according to akte.

The participating NGOs are convinced that self-regulation has its limits, in particular because participation remains optional. According to akte member Christine Plüss, legal constraints therefore are essential. A self-regulation of the industry only makes sense if additional binding regulations exist. Because it is only with the help of these that companies could be held accountable for their adherence to human rights and environmental standards and sanctions can be imposed in the case of non-compliance. Such regulations would also ensure that all companies in this industry would be subject to the same rules. Such legal constraints are unfortunately still not a long-term goal of Swiss politics.


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