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The United States’ Role in a New UNWTO?

Marcelo Risi, UNWTO

It’s difficult for tourism ministers to travel to Madrid the end of this month to make history for a new UNWTO. It may be equally a lost chance for UNWTO member countries to show leadership and become a pioneer for a future and new UNWTO, if they stay home or send an ambassador to do the job of a tourism minister at the upcoming UNWTO General Assembly in Madrid November 28 – December 3.

  • The United States, Australia, and the United Kingdom are major powers in World Tourism, but not a member of the World Tourism Organization (UNWTO).
  • Representatives, expensive consultants, and other experts from these countries had been hired by UNWTO and affiliates for consulting, research, and other jobs, while their countries don’t pay any membership fees.
  • Would a new structure of the UNWTO bring the U.S. and other world powers in tourism back into this UN affiliated agency as paying members?

The U.S. was a founding member of UNWTO. For the United States to still have an enormous influence in the World Tourism Organization and World Tourism in general, but not paying a membership fee has caused UNWTO to become less relevant, less financially stable, and less as an respected leader for the public sector of the global tourism world.

On World Tourism Day 2016, the former Tourism Minister for Zimbabwe, Dr. Walter Mzembi, told eTurboNews: “On World Tourism Day in 2016, I am full to the brim with ideas.”

Mzembi wanted every U.S. state and territory to join UNWTO independently. Considering every state is already very independent in marketing tourism within and outside the U.S., this idea was not unreasonable.

“Perhaps this is the solution for the largest world tourism superpower, the United States, to officially join the United Nations World Tourism Organization (UNWTO). The solution may be 50 new members to the UNWTO, one state at a time,” Mzembi told eTurboNews.

This out-of-the-box approach was discussed with U.S. Ambassador Harry K. Thomas, Jr., and Dr. Walter Mzembi, outspoken candidate for the Secretary General of the UNWTO in 2017 when he was campaigning against the current Secretary General Zurab Pololikashvili.

UNWTO keeps sharing data, research, and other issues with the U.S. and many non-member nations without getting a fee. This of course is not sustainable.

In June 2019, rumors started about the United States rejoining the World Tourism Organization. This was quickly denied by Isabell Hill, Director, National Travel and Tourism Office at the US Department of Commerce, but behind the scenes, activities seemed to progress in this regard.

This was in October 2019, 6 months before COVID-19 destroyed tourism. This was the end of the Trump administration in the United States.

The Paris Climate Agreement, the Iran nuclear deal, the Trans-Pacific Partnership, UNESCO – these are all international agreements or protocols the United States has pulled out of since President Trump enacted his “America First” agenda at the start of his first term.

In 2019, Assistant Secretary of State Kevin E. Moley had a meeting with officials from UNWTO in Madrid to further talks of the U.S. rejoining.

In June 2019, a White House delegation attended the organization’s Executive Council meeting in Baku, Azerbaijan. At the same time, the U.S.’ intention to renegotiate membership was announced. “America First does not mean America alone,” the White House’s Principal Deputy Chief of Staff was quoted as saying.

In June 2019, when the prospect of rejoining on “terms that are advantageous to the United States” was first announced, the U.S. Department of State released a statement saying “the Administration believes that UNWTO offers great potential to fuel growth in that sector, create new jobs for Americans, and highlight the unmatched range and quality of U.S. tourist destinations.”

The UN at that time was pleased by the prospect of the U.S. rejoining. In a statement issued in 2019, UNWTO Secretary General Zurab Pololikashvili said, “It is extremely encouraging that the United States has clearly signaled its intention to rejoin UNWTO and support tourism as a key driver of job creation, investments, and entrepreneurship, and safeguarding natural and cultural heritage the world over.”

Other tourism powerhouses that are notably not members of the UNWTO include the UK, Canada, and Australia. While those nations left for different reasons, lack of oversight and the human rights credentials of those who sit on its advisory council have been frequent criticisms leveled at the organization.

The World Tourism Organization needs these major tourism powers to be members. This is not only for the urgently needed membership money, but also to maintain any standing as a global body for the world tourism public sector.

With so many irregularities within the current leadership in UNWTO, with COVID-19 pushing tourism into its biggest challenges ever, the prospect of the United States joining becomes more remote – or not?

Isabel Hills, who is not only the Director of the National Travel and Tourism Office, Department of Commerce, United States, but also the Chair of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) Tourism Committee, has full access to all UNWTO documents and research, even though the United States as a non-member, has not been paying urgently needed membership fees to UNWTO for the last 10 years.

OECD is a forum in which governments compare and exchange policy experiences, identify good practices in light of emerging challenges, and promote decisions and recommendations to produce better policies for better lives.

The OECD’s mission is to promote policies that improve the economic and social well-being of people around the world.

The Situation Today

With tourism learning how to function with COVID, Saudi Arabia and Spain started a new movement and already brought the U.S. into this mix. Under Saudi leadership, a first-ever multi-country, multi-stakeholder Tourism Coalition at COP26 in Glasgow earlier this month was formed.

Perhaps there is a chance for this new initiative to be integrated into a new UNWTO? If this initiative was to be integrated into a new UNWTO under new leadership, there is a realistic chance for all world tourism powers to join this tourism organization again.

Such an indication of inclusiveness was already and repeatedly made by the founding countries of this new initiative.

In Phase 1, 10 countries in total were invited to the coalition:

  1. UK
  2. USA
  3. Jamaica
  4. France
  5. Japan
  6. Germany
  7. Kenya
  8. Spain
  9. Saudí Arabia
  10. Morocco

This new development once more confirms the importance of the upcoming UNWTO General Assembly to set the organization on a new path.

The chance for tourism ministers of UNWTO member countries to travel to Madrid at the end of this month and participate in the General Assembly is being made more difficult by the day.

The General Assembly may become a meeting of Madrid-based ambassadors for the benefit of a handful of member countries. This may not bring the necessary number of votes necessary and could force another session at a later time.

However, it’s important for UNWTO member countries and their ministers to understand the importance of the event.

Cuthbert Ncube and Najb BalalaATB Chair and Min Tourism Kenya
ATB Chairman Cuthbert Ncube & Hon. Secretary of Tourism Kenya Najib Balala

Cuthbert Ncube, Chairman of the African Tourism Board, told eTurboNews today from an official visit to Senegal, “The African Tourism Board is recommending for Africa to be united and come together in Madrid for the UNWTO General Assembly.”

Here is what would happen if the current Secretary General was not confirmed at the upcoming UNWTO General Assembly in Madrid on December 3, 2021:
  1. The General Assembly would not adopt the recommendation made by the Executive Council for the post of Secretary General of the Organization.
  2. It would instruct the Executive Council to on its 115th session to be held in Madrid, Spain, December 3, 2021, to open a new process for the election of the Secretary General of the organization.
  3. It would instruct the Executive Council that such process of election has a minimum timetable of 3 months and a maximum of 6 months, starting from the date of the opening of the election process.
  4. It would instruct the President of the Executive Council and the Secretary General of the organization to convene the 116 Executive Council members and an extraordinary General Assembly in May 2022 at a place and date to be defined.

If the current Secretary- General would not be re-confirmed at the upcoming General Assembly, he may have another chance to enter a new fair competition for this post.

In other words, a new and fair election would be forthcoming where new candidates would be allowed to compete and campaign for the post.

Many say, this was not the case in January 2021, when the Executive Council re-elected Zurab Pololikashvili.

Many believe this may be the best path forward for the future of UNWTO and World Tourism. It’s also the best path for potential new members, such as the United States and for the 10 countries that just joined in the global initiative spearheaded by Saudi Arabia and Spain to become a driving force for a new and better tomorrow for the World Tourism Organization.

It may even set a positive legacy for the current UNWTO Secretary General.

UNWTO Ministers (Delegates) planning to attend the General Assembly in Madrid November 28 – December 3 may make history for world tourism.

Not attending the General Assembly could mean a lost opportunity for such a country missing from this important event.

Who will be missing at the General Assembly are eTurboNews reporters. In February 2018, eTurboNews proudly reported the appointment of Marcelo Risi as the Senior Media Officer of UNWTO.

Marcelo told eTurboNews in February 2018 when asked why responses from UNWTO are no longer routine and difficult, the answer was: “There is a new rule of procedure and approval.”

Now the same Marcelo Risi was ordered to blacklist eTurboNews from the current UNWTO, forcing eTurboNews to make alternative arrangements to effectively cover this important General Assembly.

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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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