The World Tourism Organisation | Fernando.Calvo - CDV - EFE - POO


Think of the United Nations World Tourism Organization (UNWTO) as being a bit like FIFA. It is an international body that has cultivated the developing world, which is only right and proper and as it should be. But in so doing, it has also invited suspicion.

In a year’s time, the World Cup will take place in Qatar. We are all aware of issues that surrounded that decision and continue to, not least those to do with human rights, including the conditions for migrant workers. Admirable though a geographical broadening of the tournament may be, it is one that has come at great ethical cost.

Some months ago came the first rumours of the possible relocation of the UNWTO headquarters from Madrid to Riyadh. The rumours were to be substantiated. Although this possibility would now seem to have been eliminated, it has exposed the UNWTO to precisely the same claims levelled at FIFA - those regarding ethics, power base and purpose.

In the case of Qatar, it was as if FIFA was thumbing its nose at democratic sensitivities. In footballing terms, FIFA also thumbed its nose at the calendar, once it became clear - as it should have been from the outset - that a tournament in the Qatari summer represented a serious risk to health.

With the UNWTO, the mere hint of a relocation to Riyadh could have been construed as a thumbing of its nose at Spain, but it was less so to other established tourist nations - both receiving and supplying nations. The UK and the USA are just two countries which aren’t members of the UNWTO.

Others include all the Scandinavian countries. But rather than seeking to bring these countries onside, the UNWTO seemed set on what has appeared to many to have been the cultivation of a different power base, with the headquarters in Saudi Arabia.

The Riyadh revelation sparked off a great deal of commentary. While some of this was critical of the Spanish government for having been dragging its heels over new offices for the UNWTO in Madrid, there was also a great deal of criticism aimed at the UNWTO itself. In recent days, this has been reaching a crescendo, with the Palma-based Hosteltur to the fore in investigating the role of this institution and seeking opinion from people in the know.

My own views of the UNWTO predated the surfacing of the Riyadh rumour, and they had to do with its leadership function. This has especially been in question during the pandemic, with the private World Travel & Tourism Council having appeared to be far more dynamic. This is one of the charges now being levelled at the UNWTO.

Particularly damaging have been the views of the two immediate predecessors to the current secretary-general, the Georgian diplomat Zurab Pololikashvili, who was once his country’s ambassador to Spain. Taleb Rifai, who was secretary-general between 2010 and 2017, believes that the UNWTO is not meeting its objectives, that its work isn’t particularly relevant for the global tourism industry, that there is a problem with its leadership, and that it would be a good idea if Spain were to put up a candidate against Pololikashvili. For its part, it has become pretty clear that Spain would like there to be a change.

Francesco Frangiallli, secretary-general from 1997 to 2009, feels that the management is ineffective, that objectives are unclear, that the UNWTO has been turned into an organisation with an end in itself and that it is becoming a coalition of Third World countries. In this regard, one might say that it sounds rather like FIFA.

The 24th general assembly of the UNWTO is scheduled to be held in Madrid at the end of this month. It was originally going to be in Morocco, but public health considerations led to the change of venue. In Spain the criticisms are vociferous. They form part of the backdrop to this assembly, which has real questions that it needs to address, such as its own relevance.

The credibility of the tourist tax

A report earlier this week sought to offer an explanation, provided by the Balearic finance minister Rosario Sánchez, as to why tourist tax spending for 2022 will not be subject to consideration by the so-called commission for the promotion of sustainable tourism.

This commission comprises, among others, representatives of government ministries, island councils, business organisations, unions, environmentalists, the university and town halls. Its role in determining how tourist tax revenue is spent is unclear. This is because the government always seems to have already decided which projects are to benefit.

It will not be convening until 2023, which frankly isn’t much of a concern, given how irrelevant it has been. But Sánchez wished to draw attention to it not resuming its function until then, and she did so with an explanation which, to me at any rate, made no sense.

It is because the government will have money to make investments thanks to European Next Generation funds and the Spanish government’s insularity factor, which appears as a budget item in 2022 for the first time. The Balearic government will therefore be able to spend money on projects which interest it without having to respond to requests from the commission.

Can you understand this, because I can’t? As there are these other sources of investment funding, do they not make a strong case for resuming the commission’s function (such as it is) in 2022 and therefore allocating the tourist tax revenue to the purposes identified in the government’s own sustainable tourism tax legislation?

Using what tourist tax revenue there has been for emergency purposes is perhaps understandable, but revenue in 2022 - so it seems - is to go on whatever the government deems appropriate. Is this how the tourist tax is meant to be? There again and because there are six purposes for the tax which provide very broad reasons for its spending, you can - if you are a government minister - justify more or less any spending in these terms.

Which brings us to the Los40 Music Awards, on which 580,000 euros of tourist tax revenue were spent. Iago Negueruela says that sponsorship of this event is part of the strategy to promote low-season tourism and to reactivate the economy.

It is along similar lines to sponsoring sports events, while the event was great publicity and will generate a very high return on investment - six euros for each euro invested. In addition, it has contributed to business reactivation for companies in the audiovisual sector that were contracted for the event. Moreover, unions and employers associations have backed this type of sponsorship.

But not all associations. For instance, the one for small to medium-sized hotels, which doesn’t have direct representation on the currently suspended commission but is a part of Pimem, which does, reckons that using tourist tax revenue for the music awards undermines the credibility of the tax.

Credibility. Now there’s a question.