Skift Take

The UNWTO executive council missed a huge opportunity to show leadership when it failed to vote for Bahrain's Shaikha Mai, a respected sustainable tourism leader with fresh ideas for global tourism's recovery. A chance to correct course can still happen at final confirmation proceedings this fall.

The United Nations World Tourism Organization’s executive council voted Tuesday to reelect sitting secretary general Zurab Pololikashvili as leader of the UN’s tourism body for another four years.

The vote from its 35-member executive council, held in Madrid, comes in spite of recent formal objections filed by former UNWTO leaders, including Taleb Rifai, about alleged impropriety by Pololikashvili and the UNWTO as it relates to the election process, such as shortening the candidacy submission window and bumping up the security council meeting to January, instead of holding it at the usual time in May.

His sole opposing candidate, Bahrain’s nominee Shaikha Mai and the first female candidate for secretary general that UNWTO has seen, managed to travel to Madrid against all odds to campaign and meet with representatives of member countries in spite of Covid travel restrictions, a heavy winter in Spain and the holiday season.

Skift has reached out to the UNWTO and to Mai, but did not hear back in time for publication.

Earlier Tuesday morning, Mai publicly acknowledged the significance of Tuesday’s vote for secretary general, and briefly shared her thoughts on the short period of time she was given to present her platform as a new candidate. “While I am aware some concerns have been voiced over the proceedings of this election for UNWTO secretary General, I remain optimistic that fairness will prevail despite difficult circumstances,” she said in a series of tweets.


One of Mai’s primary and innovative proposals was to establish a public-private fund that would be intended to support member countries’ tourism economies as they recover. In an interview with Spanish media, Mai noted that the “UNWTO needs to play a leadership role for its members” at this critical juncture.

“I will bring to UNWTO my experience in attracting voluntary funds and building partnerships with the private sector,” Mai said, noting elsewhere that she would reach out to donor banks, funding agencies and large corporations for financial support.

When asked about the UNWTO’s lack of leadership during Covid and how she might change that, the Bahraini candidate stated that “tourism’s cannot get out of this crisis on its own,” and pointed to the importance of collaborating with other institutions across public and private sectors, including the World Tourism and Travel Council.

Meanwhile, more allegations of unethical campaign behavior surfaced in the media yesterday denouncing that Pololikashvili’s native Georgia had sent its foreign minister to host a dinner for meeting attendees on the eve of the body’s executive council vote, an event to which candidate Mai was not invited.

Congratulations for Pololikashvili rolled in on social media Tuesday, but the secretary general confirmation process isn’t entirely over.

“Any member state can object and 2/3 of all members —155 — will have to confirm the new secretary general,” Taleb Rifai told Skift about today’s outcome.

There’s a possibility, then, that the other members of the UNWTO — particularly those not on the executive council and without preferential treatment — will finally realize their respective tourism sectors could benefit from new leadership with a respected, proven global track record, fresh ideas and a backbone.


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Tags: coronavirus, coronavirus recovery, unwto

Photo credit: Zurab Pololikashvili, Secretary General of the United Nations World Tourism Organization, was reelected for another four-year term today at the security council meeting in Madrid. World Travel & Tourism Council

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