Headquarters of the United Nations World Tourism Organization

Headquarters of the United Nations World Tourism Organization (UNWTO), in Madrid (Spain).

13-08-2021Luis Garcia

Germán Porras, a one-time director of Spain’s national tourism agency, Turespaña, suggested in an article in the newspaper La Razón earlier this week that the UN World Tourism Organization could be about to up sticks and move its headquarters from Madrid to Riyadh.

The WTO has been in existence since November 1975. The HQ has always been in Madrid, the choice of Spain having been made when Franco was still alive (the Generalissimo died three weeks after the official formation of the WTO). Spain’s growing importance in international tourism was a reason for choosing Madrid, as was the belief that a UN body would assist in a move towards democracy, which was more assumption than fact at that time.

If there were to be a relocation to Riyadh, the WTO would have its headquarters in a country that is not democratic and is most certainly not on the cusp of becoming so. Moreover, it has a dreadful human rights record. From a tourism point of view, there are big ambitions for the Red Sea development - up to 8,000 hotel rooms in a part of the country to be given separate treatment so that, for example, women will be able to wear bikinis. Strategically, tourism is seen by the Saudis as a means of diversifying from being a petrostate. Not, however, that this should play any part in WTO decisions.

The possibility of the move has partly been inspired by the opening at the end of May of the WTO’s regional office in the Middle East. It is in Riyadh. The secretary-general of the WTO, Zurab Pololikashvili, said that this office “will be a centre of conversation, debate and decision-making and bring hope to many people across the region, allowing them to enjoy the social and economic benefits only tourism can deliver”.

Where Spain is concerned, there is the prestige and kudos of having the WTO. The UN doesn’t have any other headquarters in the country, and the one that it does is a reflection of the fact that Spain is very much among the tourism industry’s global leaders. The WTO, as it turned out, did become a partner in the transition to democracy and therefore to a fostering of cross-cultural relationships, which are an essential element of tourism. Plenty of credit is still given to politicians and officials who worked for Franco’s tourism ministry in having succeeded in getting the UN to set up the HQ in Madrid.

There are, it needs saying, plenty of critical voices - the WTO is another UN monolith and not a particularly useful one either. But it is the one body that at least aspires to be truly global in the advancement of tourism, with particular emphasis nowadays on sustainability, developing economies and rural tourism. While the criticism can be valid, opinion is that it is better to have the WTO than not have it, as it does represent kudos for Spain, which would lose its permanent position on the WTO executive council, if the relocation were to happen. This is the only permanent position that Spain has in the UN.

In the past, there have been attempts by various countries to get the WTO to relocate. They have all seen the potential benefit because of prestige and a rubber-stamping of their position in the global tourism market. But the latest attempt would seem to be the most concerted, the Saudis having undertaken a diplomatic campaign. This is being directed at the general assembly, which comprises 159 governments. It is due to meet in Marrakech in October, though this is likely to be postponed.

Whenever the assembly does gather, it is believed that there is a genuine risk to Spain and that a two-thirds vote (which would be needed) will approve a move. The Spanish government needs to launch a counter campaign, but it is being pointed out that an important factor in any decision by the general assembly is that the government has been dragging its heels in redeveloping the Palacio de Congresos de la Castellana in Madrid as a new headquarters building.

Germán Porras argues that this is the main reason why the WTO might leave Madrid. For him, the loss of the WTO would be an “unmitigated diplomatic, political and economic failure”. The impact would be highly negative in that it would damage Spain’s image as a global tourism leader.

The secretary of state for tourism, Fernando Valdés, said in August last year that the redevelopment of the old convention centre would give greater visibility to the WTO. He therefore hinted that the government would be moving ahead on it, but there is still no obvious commitment, and for some in the tourism industry this is further evidence of the Spanish government not appreciating the role of tourism sufficiently.

For all its apparent faults, Spain’s loss would be greater than the benefit of ensuring that the WTO stays in Madrid (at an estimated cost of 70 million euros for redevelopment). This loss may well be being exaggerated, but right now, because of Covid and the ramifications of the pandemic, a decision to relocate would be a blow.

Imserso - the latest debacle

The Imserso programme of subsidised holidays for Spanish senior citizens has once again been plunged into complete chaos. This has become almost an annual event because of challenges to terms and conditions by different organisations, and the 2021-2022 programme is threatened because the Hosbec hotelier association in Valencia has successfully appealed against the specifications to the court for contractual disputes. The Spanish government’s Institute for Senior Citizens and Social Services (Imserso) has been given five days to respond.

At present, the processing of contracts is temporarily suspended, but it could be that the court ends up deciding on a permanent suspension. One of Spain’s main unions, the CCOO, says that it hopes there is a swift resolution and that there is no delay to the start of the programme in October. The union notes that there are usually over 800,000 hotel places across different regions, which of course include the Balearics, and that some 12,000 direct jobs could be affected.

The hoteliers have been complaining for years about how little they make from Imserso. They do have very legitimate grievances in this regard. However, this really is not the time to be playing hardball and to be risking a delay or even a complete loss of the programme. Every last euro counts right now, as does every last job.


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