Saudi Arabia’s ambitions for international tourism stardom include seeking the relocation of the UNWTO headquarters. | Fernando.Calvo - CDV - EFE - POO


The United Nations World Tourism Organization has 159 member states, 81.5% of all the countries in the world. Tourism is a global industry, and so the UNWTO could expect to have global reach. But there is always the missing 18.5%.

Would you care to hazard a guess as to two international tourism heavyweights included in this absent 18.5%? Belgium, Denmark, Finland, Norway, Sweden? All correct but not genuine heavyweights. Australia? New Zealand? Both right, but still not great powers. United Kingdom? United States of America? Spot on, and there are the next door neighbours as well - Ireland and Canada.

The UNWTO does enjoy the representation of some tourism superpowers. China has emerged as a superpower, then there are traditional ones - France, Germany, Italy and of course Spain. Of course Spain, because the UNWTO is based in Spain - Madrid to be precise. But for how much longer?

The list of member states starts somewhat inauspiciously. At number one, by virtue of alphabetical order, is Afghanistan. Tourism ambitions for Afghanistan have, it’s reasonable to assume, dimmed somewhat in recent weeks. These ambitions, it’s also fair to conclude, were never that great. They would certainly not have stretched to a vision of being a global power. This is unlike certain other nations among the 81.5%. Let’s say, for example, the country which is number 126 on the list. Yes, let’s say so - Saudi Arabia.

As noted a month or so ago in this column, Saudi Arabia’s ambitions for international tourism stardom include seeking the relocation of the UNWTO headquarters from Madrid to Riyadh. While this move wouldn’t exactly make much difference to Spain’s tourism, it would be a blow in prestige terms. There has only ever been one HQ and it has been in Madrid - since 1975.

As Spain is not blessed with having numerous UN HQs - none apart from the UNWTO - the country can perhaps ill afford to lose what little it does have. The possibility, more than a mere possibility, that the UNWTO might take itself off to Riyadh is being looked upon as a diplomatic failure by the Spanish government.

Moreover, this is a failure partly brought about by the government not having got a move-on with providing the UNWTO with a new HQ building - the redevelopment of the Palacio de Congresos de la Castellana, which has been closed since 2012, at a cost of around 72 million euros.

Setting aside the questions as to why the UNWTO would actually need a new HQ (in Madrid or anywhere for that matter) and whether 72 million euros would represent a wise use of public funds in these Covid-impacted times, Spain’s tourism minister, Reyes Maroto, announced on Wednesday that the necessary steps for the Palacio redevelopment project will commence next year and that work on this redevelopment will take fifteen months.

The minister made this announcement after having been accompanied to look at the Palacio by Spain’s foreign affairs minister, José Manuel Albares (needed because of the diplomatic angle), and the secretary-general of the UNWTO, Zurab Pololikashvili. But what about the rumours about Riyadh, secretary-general?

What indeed, as he didn’t attend the subsequent press conference, although he did tweet that he had been able to “see the project for the new unwto headquarters in Madrid”.

So, Reyes Maroto would seem to believe that the UNWTO will be staying put, albeit in a different building. But the general assembly of the UNWTO may just have other ideas, even if the mooted relocation isn’t formally on the agenda for this December’s gathering in Morocco. And the Saudis most definitely have ideas.

To this end, the UK - not a member of the UNWTO and with no particular axe to grind in terms of its HQ - will be offering Saudi Arabia the opportunity to conduct a global tourism charm offensive.

At the World Travel Market in London at the start of November, there will be two sessions dedicated to Saudi Arabia - Saudi Arabia’s Tourism Vision and Saudi Giga Projects Put Sustainability First. And “giga” they are. They include the massive Neom project as part of a plan to derive ten per cent of GDP from tourism by 2030 - it’s currently only around one per cent.

The London showcase is therefore neatly timed - a month before the general assembly convenes. There again, has Pololikashvili’s tweet suggested that the Madrid future has been secured? Within the politics of the UN it’s hard to know, and these politics are taking on a look not dissimilar to the realpolitik of a quite different global body - Fifa.

Shifting powers or the desire for a shift in power resulted in the huge error of the Qatar World Cup. Apart from the disruption to the football calendar brought about by the need to reschedule the tournament during the Qatari winter, there are the human rights. The same goes for Saudi Arabia.

If the UNWTO genuinely feels the need to move away from Spain, there is no shortage of member states. This said, Afghanistan won’t be a rival to Saudi Arabia. Will it?

Do Més understand all-inclusive?

I’m not here to defend all-inclusive, but I will defend all-inclusive against generalisations of the kind inferred by the parliamentary spokesperson for Més, Miquel Ensenyat, on Wednesday.

In addressing a change to the economic model in the Balearics, which basically means a change to tourism, Ensenyat called for regulation of all-inclusive in order to end “tourism of excesses”.

Is Sr. Ensenyat aware, for example, of the Ikos Resorts luxury, five-star all-inclusive project that I wrote about on Thursday? How can this, and there are other examples, possibly be lumped in with tourism of excesses?

More broadly, and while appreciating there is excessive drinking by some guests at some all-inclusives, the issue with all-inclusive has always had to do with the impact on local businesses and not with some guests getting bladdered.

They’re an easy target for politicians spouting about tourism of excesses, as these politicians know only too well that it has never been within their powers to defend local businesses against all-inclusive.