Bel Oliver, who is now working for the UN's World Tourism Organization. | Pilar Pellicer - Archive


The national ministry of industry, trade and tourism is located on the Paseo de la Castellana in Madrid. If you were to be at the ministry's headquarters, to exit the building and take a short walk heading northward along the Paseo de la Castellana, you would come to a road to your left. If you were to walk along that road for an even shorter distance, you would come to another headquarters - the UN's World Tourism Organization (UNWTO).

Bel Oliver will appreciate the close proximity of these two headquarters. She has swapped one building for another. On Tuesday, she ceased to be the secretary of state for tourism, departing the ministry for a post at the UNWTO which hasn't been defined.

Bel Oliver is Majorcan. She is a member of PSOE. Close to President Armengol, she became secretary of state when Pedro Sánchez formed his government in June 2018, following the ousting of Mariano Rajoy of the PP. The news of her (undefined) appointment at the UNWTO was greeted on Twitter by PSOE in the Balearics as being "great news" for the Balearics. Oliver will be "occupying a position of great international relevance at a key time for the tourism of our islands": so relevant that no one was aware what it actually was. The reaction by PSOE in the Balearics was all part of the spin. And spin was most certainly needed.

On Monday, Oliver and the minister for industry, trade and tourism, Reyes Maroto, launched a campaign with the slogan "Back to Spain". The minister said that "the special circumstances of this summer make it necessary to launch a publicity campaign with which we want to remind international tourists that Spain is a safe bet". The minister and secretary of state posed for photos in front of various posters which advanced this back-to theme: "Back to surfing oceans and skies", "Back to strolling through history" (with or without the aid of a mask), and so on.

Maroto observed that the tourism sector is being "very responsible" in implementing safety protocols for Covid-19. Her ministry, she added, was seeking to generate certainty and guarantees for tourists. Part of this initiative is the "Responsible Tourism" seal, which is available to establishments and activities that follow the measures for reducing coronavirus contagion as set out by the ministry.

So, there they were - Maroto and Oliver on Monday, making a presentation for "Back to Spain", a campaign of significance for the nation's tourism industry. Within 24 hours of this launch, Oliver was walking round the corner to the UNWTO. Something didn't seem right, and that was because not everything was right, especially where the "Responsible Tourism" seal was concerned.

Agustín Rivera is a journalist with El Confidencial. Around the time of that Monday presentation, he broke his exposé of the "Responsible Tourism" seal. Rivera revealed that applications for this seal are not verified by the ministry (the secretary of state's office); nor are applicants. Erroneous information and false identifications can be sent, and Rivera proved the lack of control by sending emails purporting to be on behalf of businesses in the tourism sector and then receiving responses which included the seals. These are displayed and indicate that establishments are Covid-free.

Maroto announced on Monday that some 7,000 applications had been received. The Rivera exposé doesn't necessarily mean that any of these are not valid, but what it demonstrated was an absence of checking for a seal that forms a key part of the "Back to Spain" campaign.

The ministry has flatly denied that Oliver's move has anything to do with the "Responsible Tourism" revelation. But once Rivera's report was published, the tourism industry's response was swift. The CEHAT national confederation of hotel associations demanded that the ministry take "immediate measures", adding that the "lack of rigour" was allowing "random users with false and unverified identification to obtain the ministry's official accreditation". The confederation said that it was "sure that professionals in the tourism sector" will have downloaded the seal with "all the guarantees". Nevertheless, these guarantees are now being questioned due to "the misapplication of technology and verification". This was "intolerable and unacceptable".

Oliver, according to the ministry's version, was on her way to the UNWTO in any event. But the timing of her departure has obviously been met with scepticism. If it was genuinely the case that she had a new position with the UN, why was she being allowed to take this up at a time when the tourism industry faces such a difficult summer?

The fact of her having made the presentation on Monday has just fuelled the view that the ministry reacted to the Rivera report by finding a convenient means of moving her on. And her replacement doesn't do much to alter this perception. Fernando Valdés was, until Tuesday, an under-secretary at the ministry whose responsibilities and CV point to limited (if any) experience of tourism.

Maroto insisted that Oliver's appointment by the UNWTO forced a change. Having praised Oliver for her two years of work, effort and dedication, Maroto then drew this into question by stating that changes "address the need to strengthen the team in face of the new challenges for tourism posed by post-Covid-19 recovery".

We are left to wonder, therefore, if Oliver had already been lined up for the chop, there having been a second new appointment on Tuesday - that of Miguel Sanz as the CEO of the Turespaña national tourism promotion agency. There hadn't been a CEO for more than a year; Oliver was in effect covering this post.

It may well be, then, that the ministry's version is correct. But it will not quell the doubts, and nor will the convenience of Oliver's appointment do anything for removing perceptions regarding the finding of jobs for friends. Moreover, there is the link between the UNWTO and the Spanish government. This is perhaps inevitable, given the UNWTO's location, but an impression now being offered is one of the UNWTO being more closely aligned with the government than was thought. The tweet by PSOE in the Balearics only served to reinforce this impression.