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12 Oct, 2009

UNWTO Joins Bandwagon Of Global Restructuring Groups

Astana, Kazakhstan: The restructuring “bug” sweeping through international travel industry associations last week spread to the UN World Tourism Organisation (UNWTO) which is set to undergo a complete internal and external overhaul following the election of a new secretary-general.

Former Jordanian tourism minister Dr Taleb Rifai, the first Arab to run the 154-member body of global tourism, won the approval of the General Assembly to carry out sweeping reforms in the way the Madrid-based organisation is run, administered and services its members.

Set to officially take over as of January 2010, Dr Rifai noted the significance of these changes being approved in Kazakhstan, a country at the crossroads of Eurasia, when the future of the UNWTO itself was at the crossroads along with the entire travel & tourism industry.

Referring to it as an effort to “reinforce your sense of ownership of this organisation,” Dr Rifai briefed representatives of the world’s tourism ministries and national tourism organisations on plans to abolish all the UNWTO’s internal units and departments and replace them with a project- and programme-driven structure designed to deliver tangible and measurable results.

He preambled the announced changes by bluntly acknowledging that many in the travel & tourism industry itself do not know what the UNWTO does. “People don’t know about us,” he said. “Our image is rather weak. People still get a questioning look on their faces when they hear our name.”

He said the linkages between the UNWTO and a number of external affiliations established over the years would be reviewed, and efforts made to boost linkages with other U.N. agencies, especially the International Labour Organisation.

A new decentralised decision-making apparatus would be created under the charge of three new executive directors being brought in from outside: Marcio Favilla, former vice minister of tourism, Brazil; Dr Zoltan Somogyi, former tourism secretary, Hungary; and Frederic Pierret, former director of tourism, France.

While stressing that these were all capable and highly qualified people selected from amongst the nominations by the regional commissions, Dr Rifai indicated that he would have liked to see more women in the line-up. He also noted the lack of representation from Asia or Africa.

However, in addressing this and various other details of his proposed programme, Dr Rifai stressed clearly that these were all first steps in what would be a long and arduous path, and that more fine-tuning improvements would be made in line with feedback from members.

Welcoming future scrutiny and the challenge of delivering on his plans, he repeatedly reminded delegates that he was acting in accordance with all the rules, regulations and processes that the members themselves had approved in previous general assemblies.

He recognised the demands by the members to deliver better results, make more efficient use of funds, adhere to the requirements for transparency as well as the intangible need not to ruffle any diplomatic or political feathers nor belittle the years of work done by the long-serving staff.

One example of this diplomatic minefield was in dealing with visas and travel advisories. Although countries like Kenya, Nepal and Pakistan vehemently denounced travel advisories, a resolution on the matter had to be phrased in the nicest of language in order not to upset the advisory-issuing countries.

Dr Rifai sought the members’ cooperation to give him the time, cooperation and support to make things work, noting that the industry itself is undergoing significant change, and being impacted by unforeseen “external shocks” that often see the best-laid plans being overtaken by events.

Noting the good news that the UNWTO, with its 25 million Euro budget for 2010-11 was in a healthy financial state, Dr Rifai said that in future a lot more effort would be made towards mobilising funds through external sources and bringing in more affiliate members.

Thailand pays 150,000 Euro in annual dues (but had not yet paid this year’s dues as of Aug 2009). The permanent secretary of the ministry of tourism & sports Dr Sasithara Pichaichannarong chairs the UNWTO Regional Commission for East Asia and the Pacific and impressed delegates with a bilingual English-French presentation during the policy statements at the general assembly.

Dr Rifai also announced he would be revamping the UNWTO website, improving the communications platform, upgrading the headquarters building, making better use of technology and cutting back on a voluminous and cumbersome paper-based distribution process.

One critical issue now happily resolved is South Korea’s future role in the UNWTO. Dr Rifai won the top post after a bruising election battle against a Korean candidate. However, the Koreans indicated that there were no hard feelings by applying for, and winning, the right to host the next General Assembly in 2011.

The restructuring bug has now struck PATA and the UNWTO. Next in line is believed to be the United Federation of Travel Agents Associations (due to meet in Kathmandu in November) and soon enough, the ASEAN tourism groupings (set to meet in January 2010 in Brunei).

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