Distinction in travel journalism
Is independent travel journalism important to you?
Click here to keep it independent

17 Oct, 2011

Transparency & Accountability: UNWTO Raises Industry Standards to New Level

The UN World Tourism Organisation (UNWTO) ended its 19th biennial General Assembly in Seoul last week by setting new standards of transparency and accountability for the global travel industry as well as its many membership-based associations, both public and private.

Fulfilling one of the key pledges made by the Secretary-General Dr Taleb Rifai (a former tourism minister of Jordan) upon his election to the post two years ago, the UNWTO posted its entire set of meeting documents online. The public now has unrestricted access to complete information on the world’s apex tourism body, including its detailed finances, membership status, projects, activities, staffing structure and much more.

No other international travel industry association or organisation is known to make such information available. With the UNWTO now having led by example for the second General Assembly in a row, other industry groupings now face the challenge of following suit.

The website clearly shows the vast improvement in transparency of the General Assembly documentation over the years. The 17th General Assembly in Colombia in 2007 contains hardly any information of relevance. A quantum improvement was made in 2009, at the 18th General Assembly, when Dr Rifai was elected. And now the 19th General Assembly has gone even further.

The documents show in clear detail the entire structure of the UNWTO, who sits on its various bodies and committees, its financial situation, and what is being done to make it more efficient and focused.

One of the most significant documents on the list is “A reform process for a more relevant UNWTO”, a detailed 32-page White Paper that sets out how the organisation is reinventing itself to meet membership needs in the context of a rapidly changing global and industry scenario. This warts-and-all White Paper is a readymade blueprint for the many other international travel industry organisations undergoing a similar re-engineering and restructuring exercise. Making this publicly available alone will save them millions of dollars in consultancy fees.

Attended mostly by tourism ministers from around the world, the UN WTO General Assembly is largely a housekeeping exercise, intended to approve finances and budgets, elect officers to and hear reports from the various boards and committees, comment on future plans, etc. The secretary-general also reports on the progress made on implementing the plans approved at the last general assembly in Kazakhstan in 2009. From a legal and administrative standpoint this can be quite a cumbersome exercise, just like in any publicly-funded institution.

Because it is an affiliated organisation of the UN, all the documents also have to be translated into the official languages: Russian, English, French, Spanish and Arabic.

Making the documents public allows whoever is interested to better understand the process, get involved in it and get access to free reports, such as the long-term forecast, Tourism Towards 2030. All the various election processes are also clearly demarcated and transparent. All this is clearly in line with the needs of the global world order as well as the many resolutions passed by the UN itself.

One key document is a report on the UNWTO’s financial situation. This is usually a well-scrutinised document, especially as many government members are demanding value for money, more transparency and more return on investment. Many are reviewing their continued membership in international associations and organisations.

Another key document reporting on payment of dues shows that 23 countries still owe the UNWTO 7.85 million Euro. Various plans have been formulated to get them to pay up within a fixed but phased out period of time.

Paradoxically, one cost-cutting exercise involves cutting back on staff travel. Says the report, “Efforts are being made to reduce the number and the cost of trips by Secretariat staff to the strict minimum, and to abide by the established rules regarding travel in business class for trips of 9 hours or more.

“The Secretary-General, on his part, will no longer use first class travel and his special travel allowance has been reduced by 50%. However, in order to effectively implement this policy, it is also necessary for Member States to reduce their requirements regarding official visits by UNWTO staff to their countries, keeping such requests for when it is absolutely necessary.

“Increased used of video conferencing is being increasingly used to communicate with other UN agencies and this practice will also be encouraged in the communications with governments.”

Because the UNWTO cannot be all things to all members, it has to prioritise and have the necessary budgetary, human resources, and institutional capabilities of delivering on what is essentially a global agenda. This makes the White Paper on the reform of the UNWTO a critical document. It sets out a clear agenda of the issues to be tackled and a roadmap for implementation.

Says the paper, “There is a consensus that the UNWTO requires some fundamental changes in the way it operates, including the thematic areas in which it works, its structure, its management and also in the way it interacts with the member states, external entities and non-governmental stakeholders in the tourism sector.

Furthermore, there is a “generalised opinion that member states should recover the sense of ownership in the organisation, by means of greater participation in the definition of priority areas and fulfilling a more active role in all its organs and technical committees.”

The White Paper essentially says that because the UNWTO cannot do everything by itself, it can do a lot more by forging stronger partnerships with other organisations, especially within the UN system.

Making a clear reference to the need for “additional, innovative funding sources,” the White Paper also recognises that most of the activities must be targeted at the least developed countries in order to help them maximise the economic returns and job creation potential of tourism.

Another key document is for modernising the UNWTO website to make it an important tool for delivering membership services, keeping the public abreast with its various activities, interacting with users, providing promotional opportunities for the various national tourism organisations, discussion forums and sharing statistical data.

Increasingly, the UNWTO is also reaching out to affiliate members, mainly from the private sector. A key challenge in this area is “the need to strengthen this group’s sense of belonging in the organisation and to reinforce systems of mutual collaboration.”

Another paper on human resources identifies how many staff there are, their precise designations and nationalities, even their age groups. Furthermore, all the working documents were sent in electronic format and the delegations were left to print out whatever they wanted.