Zurab Pololikashvili was elected the new UNWTO Secretary-General. He’s pictured here speaking at a UNWTO event in May 2017. UNWTO / Flickr
Skift Take: The UNWTO has been touting impressive growth in global tourism for years but, has only recently started to get more serious about the reality of overtourism. Travel brands will be watching how Pololikashvili responds to the problem, and whether he can get through to destinations that are struggling.
The new United Nations World Tourism Organization Secretary-General hopes to expand the organization’s membership base as one of his top priorities.
The UNWTO appointed Zurab Pololikashvili, Georgia’s ambassador to Spain, Andorra, Algeria and Morocco, as its new Secretary-General for the 2018-2021 term.
UNWTO’s membership includes 156 countries, six associate members and 500 affiliate members representing the private sector, educational institutions, tourism associations and local tourism authorities.
The U.S., one of the world’s most visited countries, is notably not a member because of disagreements about policy and membership costs. And 35 other countries, such as the UK, Ireland, the U.A.E. and Sweden are also non-members.
Pololikashvili’s also inheriting an organization that’s beginning to put more emphasis on tourism growth.
“I propose to initiate the following thematic platforms to expand UNWTO’s advocacy work and awareness-raising: a global leaders’ summit on travel and tourism for heads of state, in parallel with the UNWTO General Assembly; an annual ministerial meeting on safety, security and travel facilitation to enhance effective inter-sectoral coordination; an annual global ‘invest in tourism’ forum to promote investment opportunities and share best international practices on investment and incentive policies; and an annual ministerial-level forum on climate change and tourism to offer specific recommendations on implementing long-term sustainable development policies,” Pololikashvil said in a statement.
The UNWTO Secretary-General is the de facto leader of global tourism and regularly meets with heads of state and travel brands around the world to educate them about tourism trends and the impact of global travel, for example.
Pololikashvili’s appointment was announced during UNWTO’s 22nd General Assembly in Chengdu, China on September 14. Pololikashvili was nominated for the post in May from a group of seven candidates but his appointment was voted on and became official this week.
Pololikashvili won’t have to move far to his new post given that his ambassadorship was in Madrid, Spain, also the headquarters of UNWTO.
Pololikashvili’s nomination was somewhat controversial as there were allegations that he traded perks for votes. But outgoing Secretary-General Taleb Rifai of Jordan stressed during the announcement that Pololikashvili’s selection was made “under clean and transparent circumstances,” China’s Xinhua News Agency reports.
UNWTO should also give member states more technical expertise, said Pololikashvil. “In this regard, UNWTO should regularly prepare individual recommendations for individual governments to support the sustainable and competitive growth of travel and tourism by developing policy guidelines on destination management.”
The World Travel & Tourism Council’s president and CEO, Gloria Guevara, who’s also new in her role after being appointed in August, said that collaboration between her organization and UNWTO over the past eight years has led to more cooperation between the public and private sectors.
“We are at a critical moment in the development of our sector, where ambitious growth targets need to satisfy not only economic but also environmental and social objectives,” said Guevera, speaking during UNWTO’s General Assembly. “It is the responsibility of all stakeholders in the sector to work together to ensure that travel and tourism, which accounts for 10 percent of the world’s GDP and one in 10 jobs, continues to be a force for good in our world.”
Pololikashvili’s career has included both public and private sector experience; he worked in Georgia’s financial and banking sectors and was CEO of FC Dinamo Tbilisi, a prominent Georgian football team. He was also Georgia’s deputy minister of foreign affairs from 2005-2006 and minister of economic development from 2009-2010.
International arrivals in Georgia during Pololikashvili’s tenure as economic development minister grew from 1.5 million in 2009 to 2.8 million in 2011 as he helped liberalize visa policies for the country – a topic that Rifai, his predecessor, focused on during his tenure.
Pololikashvili is the sixth Secretary-General of the organization since it was founded in 1975. Rifai, who has been Secretary-General since 2010, did not seek re-election for another term and his current term expires at the end of this year.
UNWTO is an influential organization in that it’s part of the UN and meets with heads of state to advise them on tourism policies while also counseling travel brands on tourism policies, guidelines and goals, such as the organization’s international year of sustainable tourism development that many brands have subscribed to. While those functions are important, the organization mainly acts in an advisory role and in many cases, its policies aren’t binding on members.
At age 40, Pololikashvili is nearly 30 years younger than his predecessor and is UNWTO’s first Secretary-General from Eastern Europe. From Pololikashvili’s statements, it’s clear he wants to continue Rifai’s work in visa facilitation, and advocating for safety and security measures that don’t restrict the freedom of travel.
Pololikashvili has also said he wants to continue building UNWTO’s relationship with China, the world’s largest outbound travel market, and work with more destinations to help them with overtourism challenges and develop destination management plans.
With more than 1.2 billion travelers crossing international borders last year, it will be interesting to see how Pololikashvili promotes tourism growth in regions that are already struggling to accommodate visitors.