Duty Free and travel retail industry brings people together, says Blair

By Andrew Pentol |


Former British Prime Minister Tony Blair fielded questions from TFWA conference moderator Stephen Sackur and a packed audience at the recent TFWA World Conference.

Former British Prime Minister Tony Blair talked up the ability of the duty free and travel industry to connect different types of people worldwide at last week’s TFWA World Exhibition & Conference (30 September-04 October).

Blair, who was Prime Minister for 10 years (1997-2007) took part in a question and answer session at the recent TFWA World event in Cannes.

The discussion was chaired by BBC HARDtalk presenter, and regular TFWA conference moderator, Stephen Sackur.

Over the past decade, Blair, whose insights drew regular ripples of applause from the 2,003 delegates in attendance, has focused on addressing key global challenges. These include supporting African governments and their leaders to serve citizens most effectively.

He has also been at the forefront of challenging debates on topics such as the impacts of advancements in technology on the human workforce.


Blair began his address by paying tribute to former French President Jacques Chirac who passed away on 26 September 2019: “The great thing about your industry is that it is an industry about an open world. The more I travel, the more I think the true dividing line is between the open-minded and closed-minded.”

He explained: “Open-minded people see opportunities in crossing boundaries of faith, culture, race and nation. They think it is great. I think it is wonderful we live in a diverse culture.

“Closed-minded people see this as a threat. Your industry is about linking people across the world.

“If we go back 20 years, how many Chinese tourists would you have seen in various places around the world? Not many. Today, they are everywhere, which is good by the way.”

He also said that the opportunity for people to connect, courtesy of the DF&TR industry, should be emphasised regularly by all stakeholders.

“The more connected people are, the more peaceful the world will be. It is when you don’t know something that you fear it and when you fear it there is more likely to be conflict. When you know people and can put a face to a different culture or nation you are much more likely to coexist.”


Tony Blair and Stephen Sackur on stage in Cannes.

The DF&TR industry may connect different types of people the world over, but with a return flight from London to New York, for example, the equivalent of a year’s fossil fuel consumption required to heat a home in Northern Europe, according to Sackur, how big an issue is climate change?

Blair commented: “There are all sorts of fairy tales. It is a fairy tale if we believe climate change is not a real problem and it is a fairy tale in my view if we think we are going to solve it by stopping people from travelling.

“This is not going to work. [Environmental activist] Greta Thunberg and people like that are right to raise awareness and consciousness of the issue and to demand urgent action, but the action has to be sensible.

“Such people and groups are great when raising awareness, but we must be careful when putting them in charge of policy.”

Regarding the planned third runway at London Heathrow International Airport and the so-called environmental implications, Blair said: “The Chinese are going to build 200 new international airports in the next 10 years. Whether London has a third runway at Heathrow is not going to decide the future of the planet.”

He added: “The population of Africa, for example, will double in the next 30 years. As these countries develop, we can’t turn around and say that they [do not have the right] to have airlines or airports and can’t travel. They are going to say ‘stuff you’, as you have been doing this for years and we want the same.”


Accelerating the development of science and technology is the answer to the climate change problem, according to Blair, who suggested that we cannot tell people not to consume.

“The reason I say we cannot tell people not to consume isn’t just because I don’t think it is the right solution. It is because I feel it is a completely impractical one.

“Our biggest obligation is to work with the developing world to develop the science and technology that will allow people to consume sustainably. This is the only answer to climate change and the only one that will work.

“It can certainly be done if we show the [same level of] urgency people like Greta do, but in the development of science and technology.”

Blair refuted suggestions that nuclear power cannot be part of the climate change solution. “If you rule out nuclear, you are ruling out one area where technology is changing fast.”


The 2019 TFWA World Conference attracted 2,003 participants, a significant 20% rise on the 1,676 who attended in 2018.

Adding further insight on the subject of climate change, Blair recalled how his government introduced the first climate change legislation in the United Kingdom. He also emphasised that there are many things that can be done to benefit the environment such as the development of entirely new fuels.

“One of the things we did was mandate a system where we could develop much greater wind power (renewable energy). Britain is probably the largest user of wind power, proportionate to electricity consumption in the world.”

In Europe, the target is to reach net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050, with an earlier goal of 2030 also being discussed by some parties.

“If I was in power today, I would be doing everything I could to accelerate the process of reaching net zero emissions by 2030, but would not give a commitment if I didn’t think it could be met,” said Blair in response to one of Sackur’s questions.

“Leadership is being able to understand what a problem is and putting forward a realistic solution. Otherwise, you are not actually a leader, but a follower. What we need is more leadership and less followers in my view.”


On the topic of Brexit and the prospect of Britain leaving the European Union without a deal on 31 October 2019, Blair (below left) described the decision of British Prime Minister Boris Johnson to deliver on the 2016 referendum result as ‘dangerous and wrong’.

“To leave without a deal and to exit the preferential trading agreements without any agreement in place as to what comes next, present too great a risk.

Tony-Blair-portrait“You can argue many things about the mandate of June 2016, but it is hard to argue it is a mandate for a no-deal Brexit. This is because throughout the course of the referendum, those arguing for Brexit were saying there would be a deal and that it would be reasonably easy to have one. To leave without a deal is an irresponsible risk to take.”

Blair, who suggested it is difficult to predict how things will transpire, highlights two possible scenarios; the painful Brexit and pointless Brexit.

“If you decide to exit the political and economic (the single market and Customs Union) structures of Europe and come out of the preferential trading agreements you have been trading in for several decades, that is what I call the painful Brexit. This is because there will be a process of adjustment.

“Alternatively, you can decide to exit the political structures, but remain in the economic structures and stay in the single market and Customs Union. That is what I call the pointless Brexit, because you are leaving the European Union’s political decision making, but sticking within the rules they give you.

“The choice is there and once you make that choice everything flows from it.”

Blair said that the problem with the British Government is that it wants to remove itself from the aforementioned economic structures, but have the same access to the market.

“This is never going to work,” he insisted. “They are never going to agree that you can be inside the single market without adhering to its rules.”

Another issue he cited was the Irish Border problem. At the outset, it was agreed that the Irish border should remain open, but it can only do so if Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland are in the same trading relationship with the EU.

“At the same time, we want to have Northern Ireland out of that trading relationship,” said Blair. “The problem with Brexit in the way it has happened is that the British people have been told throughout it is just about being a tough negotiator. There is only a negotiator after you have made the choice.”


Pressed by Sackur as to whether the country should respect the June 2016 verdict — which resulted in 17.4 million people voting to leave the EU — or ‘go back to the people’ Blair said: “It depends whether you think that mandate in 2016 governs every situation in respect of Brexit, including having a no deal Brexit.

“Of course it is important to respect the June 2016 verdict, which is why I don’t think you can change Brexit unless you go back to the people, but I don’t think this is unreasonable considering the degree of mess, the magnitude of decision and the fact that we are now being told that we will crash out without a deal.

“What is undemocratic about going back to the people and asking them if they are sure they really want to do this? In normal times this would be considered common sense.

“The problem with Brexit is the same problem that we are experiencing with modern politics and the relationship between those in government and the people [they serve].”


With just a few weeks to go until Britain is due to leave the European Union, it is difficult to predict how things will transpire.

Seeking the views of the people for a second time might well be the best way forward, according to Blair who believes the country is going to find things difficult whatever happens because politics is so divided.

“It is easy to give an instruction to do Brexit in a one-off referendum, but why has it been so difficult? This is because when the MPs in parliament study the detail they realise it is not as simple as that.

“In my view, even though there will be huge resistance to the idea of going back to the people, everyone now accepts that if there is a deadlock in parliament you have got to do so.

“The sensible thing is not to do that in a general election where Brexit gets mixed up with a whole lot of other questions. The sensible thing is to do it via a referendum and ask the people if they want to think again or tell us the same thing again.”

More to follow…


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