Today the 113th Executive Council of the World Tourism Organization (UNWTO) re-elected its current Secretary-General Zurab Pololikashvili with a wide margin of 76% against the only incumbent HE Ms. Shaikha Mai Bint Mohammed Al Khalifa from Bahrain.
This UNWTO election was not about good or bad achievements, the vision, or activities by an UN-affiliated agency the tourism world is looking for to lead. It was about the selfishness of one single person and winning the election no matter how.
To add insult and injury to an already upsetting situation, in Madrid, both the Prime Minister of Spain, Pedro Sánchez, and His Majesty King Felipe VI expressed their support for UNWTO and its leadership. The Foreign Minister from Georgia sponsored the official dinner the night before the election.
What everyone should agree on: UNWTO Secretary-General Zurab Pololikashvili, who was the former Georgia Ambassador to Spain in Madrid was a master of diplomatic manipulations in 2017 and improved even more in 2020.
In 2017, his confirmation as Secretary-General was almost contested before the UNWTO General Assembly in Chengdu, China, by his incumbent rivals Dr. Walter Mzembi from Zimbabwe and supported Ms. Dho Young-shim from South Korea.
The reason Dr. Mzembi agreed to withdraw his objections was the promise by UNWTO to re-work the procedure for the election process. This was supported by both the former Secretary General, Dr. Taleb Rifai, and by the incoming Zurab Pololikashvili. Dr. Mzembi was promised to lead such an initiative.
This turned out to be a false political promise and resulted in a smooth confirmation for Zurab in 2017.
Re-working the election process never came to fruition.
Ever since 2020, the travel and tourism world has been going through the worst crisis ever due to COVID-19.
Zurab has managed to take advantage of this crisis, adding additional political tools to secure his re-election.
How UNWTO is tainting any United Nations call for fair elections, was a question this publication asked on September 13, 2020
Here is a summary:
- Zurab called for a physical meeting for the 112th Executive Council members in his home country Georgia in September 2020. Coronavirus made it difficult for any council member to attend.
- The time frame to bring up agenda items in Georgia did not realistically allow an objection by those participating to contest moving the date for the 113th Council meeting to January 18-19 instead of May. The reason was to have an event coincide with FITUR, however, FITUR was canceled just days after this.
- The time frame to bring up agenda items in Georgia did not allow members to come up with an alternative when it was announced that new candidates had to register their interest to compete with Zurab within 6 weeks. This was more than a year before the term that such a candidate would materialize. Most UNWTO member countries were caught by surprise or may have not even realized. The pressing issue in member countries was on COVID and not on candidates.
- Seven candidates registered anyway, but only one candidate from Bahrain was allowed to enter. The UNWTO secretariat under Zurab rejected 6 applications. It is not known why nor who applied.
- The only candidate campaigning against Zurab had literally no time to campaign. Travel restrictions because of COVID made a campaign impossible.
- Zurab used UNWTO money to travel the world but only concentrated on Executive Council member countries. These countries contribute only 20% of all member countries but had been catered to by Zurab over the last 2 years, while 80% of the member countries received no or very little attention.
- Spain was in lock-down, a winter storm crippled the city just 2 days before the Executive Council meeting, making it impossible for most ministers to travel to Spain.
- UNWTO insisted on a physical meeting in Madrid and would not allow a virtual election or meeting.
- As a last-minute, 48-hour surprise, the Foreign Minister of Georgia was allowed to host the official dinner hours before the election having been invited as part of the UNWTO agenda. No country would want to go against a foreign minister at that time who was arriving to see his candidate win.
- Since ministers couldn’t easily travel, embassies in Madrid voted on behalf of their countries.
- It’s not clear how many tourism ministers showed up, how many were represented by their embassies, and how many proxy votes were included in the process yesterday. Regardless it is clear that only a handful of countries decided for the 150+ member countries on who will lead tourism through the greatest crisis the industry ever faced.
Two previous UNWTO Secretary Generals, one former Assistant Secretary General, and one former UNWTO Executive Director asked for fairness in the election, however, this fell on deaf ears by Zurab.
Through the World Tourism Network (WTN), a Decency in the UNWTO Election campaign began, and hundreds of WTN members representing travel industry professionals from 125 countries were notified. Everyone responding supported the petition for UNWTO to re-schedule the Executive Council meeting, allow more candidates to compete, and preserve the fairness of the campaign. This petition was also signed by Dr. Walter Mzembi who was entrusted by Zurab and Taleb in 2018 to rework the election rules.
This petition asking for fairness and decency in the election process was then emailed, faxed, and/or delivered to the 35 UNWTO Executive Council member countries before Christmas. All US Embassies were served. Only one country sent an acknowledgment.
The petition was also hand-delivered to the UN Headquarters in New York.
This election was not only unfair, but violated JIU Ethic Rules and should not be endorsed by the upcoming 24th session of the UNWTO General Assembly in Morocco later this year.
9 voted for Bahrain. It’s not clear how many of the 26 Executive Council countries voting for Zurab actually voted directly or through a proxy. If anyone received attention during the time Zurab was in office, these are Executive Council countries. These countries were friendly to Zurab.
The few delegates attending in Madrid yesterday were also blinded by the attention they received by just one man, forgetting their responsibility to vote also for the rest of the 150+ countries that are part of this global United Nations agency.
Juergen Steinmetz, the founder of the World Tourism Network, said: “The election was not about how qualified or not qualified Zurab is. It was not about his performance and his expected performance in the future. It was about fairness and ethics.
“How could the UNWTO expect countries like the United States or the UK to join, knowing the way this agency is allowed to operate?”
“It’s another sad day for World Tourism.
‘Gloria Guevara from the World Travel and Tourism Council has been trying successfully to bring the private and public sectors together. WTTC was only allowed to speak for 3 minutes about the role of the private sector in this crisis. The World Tourism Network is ready to work with WTTC.
For me, Gloria is the true hero in how one strong woman and her knowledgeable team can respond to this unprecedented situation.
“In a time of crisis, there should not be room for selfishness. We have just seen this here in the US with our presidential election.
“While I am glad Zurab also voiced ‘togetherness’ in his campaign, so far, he has not once responded since he took office in 2018 to anything from WTN or eTurboNews.”
Scammed out of a fair chance to compete with Zurab in this important election HE Ms. Shaikha Mai Bint Mohammed Al Khalifa from Bahrain gracefully congratulated Mr.Zurab.