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UNWTO move to Saudi Arabia on Hold: Secretary-General Zurab Pololikasvili in Big Trouble?


Saudi Arabia’s minister of tourism Ahmed Al Khateeb. is the real mover and shaker in the global world of tourism, while UNWTO Secretary General Zurab Pololikasvi may be out of a job soon.

The UNWTO headquarter move is on hold, but this is by no means the end of the story yet.

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  • A relocation of the UNWTO Headquarter from Spain to Saudi Arabia got the undivided attention of the Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez and of UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres.
  • The Spanish PM had a phone call with Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman Al Saud, where the UNWTO move may have been the main reason for a call on the future of the Saudi-Spanish relationship.
  • Surprisingly, Antonio Guterres, the Secretary-General also got involved. Years of voters manipulation by UNWTO Secretary-General Zurab Pololikasvili was never dealt with, and is still ignored in New York. Now the SG is now getting involved after alerted by the Spanish government.

The intervention by the United Nations to put a hold on a UNWTO move has been successful for right now.

Spain however may now decide to withdraw its support for Secretary-General Pololikashvili. 

According to sources the manipulation in the January re-election for Zurab Pololikashvili as UNWTO secretary-general by the UNWTO Executive Committee is coming to light. With the help of Spain the support for an obiously illegitimate Secretary-General may finally come to an end.

The re-election for Zurab must be confirmed at the Moroccan General Assembly before the end of the year. Not only Spain, but many other countries in the world could and should go against the reconfirmation of Zurab for his second term, and void the 2018 election altogether.

eTurboNews recently reported that the UNWTO Secretary-General was actually never properly and legally elected into his current 2018 term.

The move of the UNWTO Headquarter to Saudi Arabia

Even though the move was never yet an official request by the Saudis, it was never presented in writing to the Government of Spain, nor to the UNTWO, Saudi Arabia was actively and openly involved in getting this move achieved.

It appears Zurab Pololikashvili had assured Saudi his support. He also assured his support to Spain. Tweets posted by Zurab showing his support for Spain were deleted to de-confuse his double-standing on the matter.

eTurboNews reached out to several tourism ministers around the world. All of them agreed they would have voted in favor for the move to Saudi Arabia, and appreciated the support Saudi Arabia had given to world tourism.

eTurboNews direct and off-the-record conversations with ministers, aids and other officials clearly confirmed enormous support for such a vote.

It also confirmed the high level of frustration member countries have with the current UNWTO.

Due to the intervention of the United Nations, this move of HQ may have been suspended for the time being, but negotiations and discussion around it seem to continue.

It can only be hoped that Saudi Arabia’s influence and fiscal strength to safe world tourism will continue. Now is the chance for a new stronger UNWTO, a new stronger global travel, and tourism industry to emerge out of the current crisis.

With Saudi Arabia involved there has been hope for many tourism-dependent countries in times of a dark future.

Saudi Arabia may have the wisdom to settle this issue and partner with Spain. Perhaps both countries together can play an essential role to bring back the importance, standing, and influence the World Tourism Organization needs to have guided this sector out of the pandemic.

María Reyes Maroto Illera (born 19 December 1973) is the Spanish Minister of Industry, Trade, and Tourism in the government of Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez since 2018.

Minister Maroto has been seen as weak in Spain. Spanish Tourism Minister Reyes Maroto, speaking to Canal Sur Radio on Monday, suggested that the eruption of the volcano in La Palma was a potential new tourist attraction, encouraging visitors to come.

Today Lava from the volcano on La Palma reached the sea. The main concern of the authorities now is the toxic clouds that could reach Canary Island, created by contact between the molten rock and the ocean.

A win/win partnership with Saudi Arabia would most certainly raise the bar for the current Spanish tourism minister.

What would it take to move UNWTO?

106 votes would have been needed to approve a move of the headquarters. According to eTurboNews sources, close to 90% of these votes had been secured already. There has been enormous support from Africa, the Arab world, but also the Caribbean, and even some European countries..

Why Saudi Arabia?

Saudi Arabia in its 2030 Strategic Plan has tourism among its three priorities.

Crown Prince Mohamed Bin Salman has proposed that the country goes from a 1% contribution of tourism to the national GDP to 10% in a plan that goes until 2030.

The plan is executed by the Saudi Minister of Tourism Ahmed Al Khateeb.

Mid-September, the Spanish Government organized a visit to the future UNWTO headquarters in Madrid, the Palacio de Congresos de La Castellana.

Scretary-General Pololikashvili attended the visit but later escaped from the press conference scheduled with ministers Reyes Maroto and José Manuel Albares. He did not bother to attend to the media or to deny the rumors about the change of headquarters and his support for Riyadh

That was when the Spanish government decided to go directly to the UN.

A couple of months ago, the UNWTO organized a forum in a South African country to discuss the advisability of developing a joint tourism brand for those countries. 

Representatives from 47 African countries attended the meeting for three days. “There the secretary-general was able to speak privately with all of them, and without witnesses from other continents.

The money that Saudi Arabia was willing to put into the operation would have done very well for all those countries’ travel and tourism projects.

Relations between Spain and UNWTO were never exceptional but decent, according to a report in a Spanish trade media. “Spain however voted for Zurab going against another candidacy that included a Spanish vice secretary.”

The fact of having the headquarters of the UNWTO does not make Spain the world capital of tourism, contrary to what some have wanted to see.

“The Spanish government hardly knows that the headquarters bill is paid automatically every month and no one finds out about it except the official who orders the bank transfer, which is still automatic.” Spain pays for the UNWTO headquarters. All of this costs Spain about 2 Million Euros a year.

The UNWTO Secretary-General charges the same as the International Labor Organization (ILO) and the Director-General of the United Nations Development Program (UNDP): $ 20,000 per month for 12 monthly payments = $ 240,000. He also receives € 40,000 a year for housing plus car and driver. The secretary-general is paid by the UNWTO, not Spain.

What each country pays for being a member of the UNWTO depends on the GDP, the population, and the tourist recipes that it applies. That amount cannot exceed 5% of the organization’s budget. 

The countries that pay the most are France, China, Japan, Germany, and Spain, which contribute about 357,000 euros a year each. Those that pay the least are Seychelles and Samoa, with a fee of 16,700 euros per year.

UNWTO brings very little value to the tourism industry and destinations. Poorly focused, without a budget -12 million dollars a year, of which 60% goes to salaries-, with officials appointed by its countries. Internal corruption and stagnation and old obsolete practices had always been an issue.

UNWTO currently has 159 members. The United Nations has 193 country members.

The United States left the UNWTO in 1995, Belgium in 1997, the United Kingdom in 2009, Canada in 2012, and Australia in 2014.

Also, the absence is Ireland, Cyprus, New Zealand, Luxembourg, and all the Nordic countries: Iceland, Norway, Sweden, Finland, and Denmark, plus two Baltic countries, Estonia and Lithuania make UNWTO a weak organization.

It’s clear a new direction for UNWTO is essential for this UN-affiliated agency to survive.

So far Saudi Arabia has responded to UNWTO and World Tourism altogether like no other country on the globe. There will be a next step, that is certain.

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About the author

Juergen T Steinmetz

Juergen Thomas Steinmetz has continuously worked in the travel and tourism industry since he was a teenager in Germany (1977).
He founded eTurboNews in 1999 as the first online newsletter for the global travel tourism industry.

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