Controversy is brewing at the United Nations World Tourism Organization (UNWTO) over the upcoming election for a new secretary general to run the tourism agency from 2022-2025.
Allegations had begun swirling weeks ago, on the heels of Bahraini Shaikha Mai’s historic candidacy, that current UNWTO leader Zurab Pololikashvili might have purposely tightened the nomination and campaign timeframe this year — a first in UNWTO history — to prevent any competition from hindering his chances to serve a second term. Mai would be the first woman ever to oversee the organization.
Concerns over an unethical bending of the rules at the UN’s tourism agency have now led to a “Restore Decency in the UNWTO Election” global petition, launched days ago by respected former secretary general Taleb Rifai and his predecessor Francesco Frangialli, both of whom served at the UN’s tourism arm for a combined 20 years.
The petition, addressed to Pololikashvili and to United Nations Secretary General Antonio Guterres, asks that the UNWTO’s current leadership show fairness in the upcoming secretary general election process by rescheduling the January nomination meeting to its usual May 2021 date.
“Making it in January has never happened before, but it was done deliberately to eliminate all the competition,” Rifai told Skift, pointing out the upcoming holiday season which means candidates would have little to no time to plan.
If not May 2021, the petition suggests that the nomination meeting coincide with the General Assembly in Morocco in September-October 2021. Advocates also requested that the timeframe for submitting secretary general nominations be moved to March 2021 to give additional candidates a chance to enter the competition and prepare for their campaigns.
Backing this petition are additional tourism sector veterans, including Geoffrey Lipman, former UNWTO assistant secretary general and former president of the World Travel & Tourism Council, and International Institute for Peace Through Tourism president and founder Louis D’Amore.
It’s also being distributed to every security council member and to over 100 ministers of tourism from member countries or their embassies. The UNTWO did not immediately respond to Skift’s request for comment.
“We did what we did out of principle really, not to be obstructing anything, because we don’t want to be accused of being sabotageurs,” Rifai told Skift. “But I think the next step would be to try and bump pressure for people to support this petition and to try to organize the media to make [Pololikashvili] say something or do something.”
UNWTO Ethics Put in Question
At the executive council meeting in September 2020, Pololikashvili proposed bumping up the 2022-2025 Secretary General nomination meeting from May 2021 to January 2021 to have it coincide with the annual Feria Internacional de Turismo (FITUR) or international tourism fair in Madrid. It was an unprecedented alteration to the tourism body’s procedures, in the same way that the September meeting was held in Pololikashvili’s country even though Georgia doesn’t sit on the Executive Council.
FITUR was subsequently postponed given the pandemic and the Europe’s lockdowns, but the UNWTO’s January election meeting was not. In the petition, advocates point to this inconsistency, but they also go further into the organization’s rules, explaining that the secret voting procedure for general elections requires the entire council’s physical presence and therefore impossible to conduct digitally. Ministers of tourism would have to vote in Madrid in person by January — an impossibility given current Covid restrictions.
“The only ones who would vote would be embassy staff from those Executive Council countries that have embassies in Madrid,” Juergen Steinmetz, founder of the new World Travel Network and whose platform published the petition, told Skift. “[I]f these are the people voting, you only get a handful of people [.] He’s not going to have any competition.”
Rejecting the petition’s requests to reschedule might give “impressions of an unethical use of procedures, which could reflect adversely on the organization,” the petition’s signatories cautioned Pololikashvili. But that’s exactly what he did days ago.
According to Rifai, shortly following the petition’s receipt at UNWTO, the Execution Council chairman contacted Pololikashvili to ask him to postpone the nomination process but he rejected the idea, stating that it was the council’s decision and that he could not change it. “UNWTO has been absolutely silent although they received [the petition],” Rifai told Skift.
The private sector has reacted in support of this campaign for fairness at UNWTO, including the Africa Tourism Board, whereas governments have yet to pronounce themselves — except for the government of Russia, which Rifai said has expressed support and asked for more information. Meanwhile, the petition advocates had a breakthrough yesterday when they reached the United Nations Secretary General in New York.
The UN tourism agency’s election process has been problematic dating back to Pololikashvili’s election in 2017. Despite a post-election UNWTO decision to redesign the procedures, nothing was ever done about it under Pololikashvili’s rule.
An Absence of Leadership Amid Crisis
“The problem of UNWTO now is a problem of leadership really,” Rifai said, contrasting against the WTTC’s work during this time. “It’s a problem of not being there for us when we need them. Nobody hears anything about them. They’re not taking any position, they’re not taking any action at all.”
While his approval for the Kingdom of Bahrain’s secretary general candidate is strong — Rifai described her to Skift as “very experienced” and “likely to bring in new blood into the UNWTO” as well as provide stronger, independent leadership which would help the organization move away from being the only UN body dependent on membership-fees — the former secretary general stated that it was unrelated to the petition.
“I do support her very much, but that’s separate from what is being done,” Rifai said. “It’s an ethical issue for me and Francesco.”
Nonetheless, all eyes will fall on Mai at the scheduled Executive Council meeting in January 2021, as the only competing candidate. First, she would need to receive 17 out of 35 votes to win the UNWTO leadership nomination or “recommendation” over Pololikashvili. Subsequently, the General Assembly would have to approve that recommendation in the Fall of 2021, but it can only do so if Mai receives two-thirds of the votes.
“If she does not make it with the Executive Council, I am sure someone would raise it at the General Assembly. It’s never happened before — all the recommendations of the Executive Council have been approved by the General Assembly. This time it will [happen], I’m sure it will, because the issue is very controversial.”
With less than a month to go until the executive council’s election meeting in January, it’s too early to tell whether the UNWTO leadership will be forced to heed the petition and reschedule. “I would give it a 50 percent chance,” Juergen said. “There has been some wind, I know people are talking about it.”