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29 Aug, 2013

ASEAN’s loss: Cambodia fails to win 2015 UNWTO General Assembly

Livingstone, Zambia — A well-oiled and –financed lobbying campaign by Colombian tourism authorities saw the South American country edge out Cambodia in the bid to host the 2015 biennial General Assembly of the UN World Tourism Organisation.

The outcome miffed the Cambodians who noted that Colombia had already hosted the General Assembly in 2007 and should have deferred to a country that has never hosted it. The Colombians did not give in, claiming that in view of the “unwritten rule” of geographical rotation, the next GA had to be moved outside Asia after being last held in Seoul.

(See Editor’s Comment below).

The votes were case by secret ballot but the process was conducted in full view of the 20th UNWTO General Assembly at the Royal Livingstone hotel. Of the 98 votes cast, 60 went to Colombia and 38 to Cambodia. Twenty-two delegations were absent. The result reflected geopolitical splits. The Asian and some of the African countries voted for Cambodia; the Latin American and European countries for Colombia.

The vote was preceded by intensive lobbying. However, Colombia mounted a slicker PR campaign, with a glitzy dinner party that swamped the low-budget Cambodian evening, which was too focussed on protocol and formality than fun and frolic.

Before the actual vote, both countries were provided with a 10-minute presentation opportunity.

Travel Impact Newswire Executive Editor Imtiaz Muqbil was the only Asia-based travel journalist invited to cover the UNWTO’s 20th General Assembly.

Speaking first, Dr Thong Khon, Minister of Tourism and President of the National Olympic Committee of Cambodia, cited Siem Reap, home of the UNESCO World Heritage site of Angkor Wat, as the host venue. He described it as a destination that everyone must see at least once in a lifetime.

He said Siem Reap had direct flights from Singapore, Bangkok, Ho Chi Minh City, Hanoi, Beijing, Shanghai, Seoul, Hong Kong, Taipei, Doha, Manila, Vientiane, Manila and Yangon. By 2015, there were will be many more flights. Visitors could also experience a bus ride via the Asian Highway from Thailand.

He cited Cambodia’s extensive visa-free or visa-on-arrival facilities for nearly all countries and its experience in hosting major events, including ASEAN summits.

“Cambodia has never got a chance to host the UNWTO General Assembly. To do so is our dream. So please let this dream be realised by giving Cambodia the opportunity to host the next GA 2015. We welcome you all to the home of the World Heritage site to fulfil your journey of a lifetime.”

He said that delegates would also get an update on the ASEAN integration process because the ASEAN Economic Community would be in place by 2015. He also conveyed the personal welcome sent by Cambodian Prime Minister Samdech Hun Sen.

He then repeated the same message in fluent French.

The Colombian delegation started its pitch with a pre-recorded video-clip presentation by President Juan Manuel Santos. In immaculate English, he focussed mainly on the importance of tourism in the reinvention of the country. He said his country’s bid had the support of its neighbours in the Americas.

Then Mrs. Tatyana Orozco, Vice Minister of Tourism, stepped up to the podium and hailed the “huge commitment by the president.” She said Colombia was now dealing with “some past issues” but was now working hard to strengthen its image, economy and global integration.

She said Colombia was a melting pot of cultures, influenced by Spain, immigrants from Germany and the Arab world and the music of Africa. It is also trying to strengthen its relations with Asia “which have not been present in our past but are now becoming part of the future” through economic integration pacts such as APEC.

Ms Orozco said the 2009 GA had been held in Astana, Kazakhstan and the 2011 GA in Seoul and, after being held in Africa this year, should be held in Latin America as part of an “unwritten rule” for geographic rotation around the continents. She did not, however, mention that Colombia held the GA in November 2007.

Her body-language indicated almost from the beginning of her pitch that she knew the vote was in the bag.

When the vote-count began, Cambodia took an early lead but the vote swung suddenly at the tail-end when nearly all the last 20 ballots came out for Colombia.

Later, the Cambodian delegation was visibly disturbed. They noted what they called breaches of procedure and protocol; for example, the Cambodian minister had spoken from his normal seat in the assembly, while the Colombian vice-minister had gone up to the podium.

The observation was largely academic, however. As the way countries vote is always predetermined, last-minute protocol issues make no difference.


Cambodia should have won that bid.

A closer analysis of the reasons for its loss is necessary in order to see what went wrong and what could have been done better. This will help countries such as Cambodia hold their own and, more important, have the full support of their ASEAN cousins for such endeavours in future.

Cambodia was more deserving of victory because it had never held a GA before, whereas Colombia had held one just six years ago. But from the perspective of funding, linguistic skills, organizational capabilities and lobbying prowess, Cambodia was at a clear disadvantage.

As Colombia refused to step aside, it should have motivated Cambodia to mount an all-out offensive to win. This is where it should have rallied the help of its ASEAN cousins which have much more experience in bidding for such events.

A full-scale, well-coordinated ASEAN blitz would have carried the vote.

But the sense of indignation was missing, and hence the motivation lagged. Feeling miffed later may be a natural feeling but it will only prove useful if Cambodia and the ASEAN countries can learn from it. That is what the ASEAN spirit of identity, integration and teamwork should be all about.

Many more such battles lie ahead. This loss should only strengthen the determination to ensure it is the last.