The race to be the next Secretary-General of the United Nations’ tourism arm will come into focus at a tourism event slated for Port-Harcourt next week, writes Demola Ojo

It was revealed a few days ago that two of the five candidates vying to be Secretary General of the United States World Tourism Organisation would be attending Port Harcourt Bantaba travel event between March 16 and 17.

Zimbabwe’s tourism and hospitality minister, Walter Mzembi, and former minister of tourism and culture of The Seychelles, Alain St Ange, are among many other travel bigwigs expected at what has been described as a “travel and tourism speed-dating event”.

Other attendees for Bantaba which used to be held in Abuja – with the first edition six years ago – are Timothy McPherson, the finance minister of Acompong, Jamaica and Damian Cook a specialist on e-tourism from East Africa.

Among other things, leading global experts will train agents on how to package in-bound and out-bound tours, while there will also be an E-tourism training sessions at Bantaba. Training will cover topics including e-Tourism in theory and practice, e-marketing strategy, web design, content and management, analytics and conversion optimisation, search engine marketing, and many more.

Some past speakers at Bantaba include former chairman of HRG and former president of NANTA, Femi Adefope and former DG NCAA, Harold Demuren. It is expected that more speakers, delegates and partners would be announced before the date of the event.

Already, South Africa Tourism Board, Tripberry.com, Golden Tulip Hotels and De Edge Hotels have all confirmed their partnership with the event.

According to Mr. Ikechi Uko, the organizer of Bantaba, the event is an opportunity for stakeholders in the industry to come together to discuss some of the salient issues affecting the sector and the way forward.

Just like the annual Akwaaba Africa Travel Market in Lagos, and ACCRA Weizo in Ghana, Bantaba will offer a platform for travel trade networking, especially for practitioners in the South-South and South-East regions of the country.

Elections Draw Near

Beyond that, it would be the stage for discussing the “salient issue” of who becomes the next person to succeed Taleb Rifai from Jordan as the next UNWTO boss. Elections for the next Secretary General will take place at UNWTO Headquarters in Madrid between May 11 and 12, during the course of the 105th meeting of the organisation’s 33-member Executive Council. As the March 11 deadline for the submission of candidatures to the UNWTO post approaches, there are five officially declared candidates.

Apart from Mzembi and St Ange, there is Doh Young-shim, a South Korean woman; Marcio Favilla, an ambassador from Brazil and Zurab Pololikashvili from Georgia.

What’s the Big Deal?

The UNWTO generates market knowledge, promotes competitive and sustainable tourism policies and instruments, fosters tourism education and training, and works to make tourism an effective tool for development through technical assistance projects in over 100 countries around the world. This includes Nigeria, with the UNWTO helping with review of a tourism masterplan.

UNWTO’s membership includes 157 countries, six territories and over 500 affiliate members representing the private sector, educational institutions, tourism associations and local tourism authorities.

UNWTO is not complete and struggles to speak for the entire world when it comes to travel and tourism issues. Non-members include: Antigua and Barbuda, Barbados, Belgium, Belize, Comoros, Denmark, Dominica, Estonia, Finland, Grenada, Guyana, Iceland, Ireland, Kiribati, Latvia, Liechtenstein, Luxembourg, Marshall Islands, Micronesia, Nauru, New Zealand, Palau, Saint Kitts and Nevis, Saint Lucia, Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, Samoa, Singapore, Solomon Islands, Somalia, South Sudan, Suriname, Sweden, Tonga, Tuvalu, the United Arab Emirates, the United Kingdom and the United States of America.

Any new Secretary General is being encouraged to make it his or her priority to push non-members to become members and join the international United Nations community of tourism destinations.

Leading the UNWTO which is one of the 17 specialised agencies of the UN is a huge responsibility; the tourism sector has been identified the third highest global export earner.

How Voting Works

The Secretary-General shall be appointed by a two-thirds majority of full members present and voting in the Assembly, on the recommendation of the Council, for a term of four years. His appointment shall be renewable.

The term of office of the current Secretary-General Taleb Rifai from Jordan, expires December 31, 2017. It is therefore incumbent on the General Assembly to appoint a Secretary-General for the period 2018-2021 at its twenty-second session due to be held in Chengdu, China, in September/October 2017.

Consequently, the Executive Council will be required at its 105th session (May 11-12) to recommend a nominee to the General Assembly.

Some of the rules which have been consistently applied for the nomination for the post of Secretary-General since 1992 state that only nationals of member states of WTO may be candidates; candidates shall be formally proposed to the Council, through the Secretariat, by the governments of the states of which they are nationals; the Council shall select only one nominee to recommend to the Assembly; discussion of candidates shall be conducted during a restrictive private meeting at which only voting delegations and interpreters shall be present; there shall be no written record and no tape recording of the discussions; during the balloting Secretariat staff necessary to assist with the voting shall be admitted.

The recommendation to the Assembly of a nominee for appointment to the post of Secretary-General shall be made by a simple majority of the members of the Council present and voting.

If no candidate receives the majority in the first ballot, a second ballot shall be held to decide between the two candidates receiving the largest number of votes.

Of the thirty-three members, ten votes are assigned to Africa, 10 to Europe, five to Latin America, five to Asia and the South Pacific and three to the Middle-East.

The Africa Angle

Already, the candidates have criss-crossed the continent and the world to introduce themselves and garner support; Mzembi for around a year, St. Ange at the beginning of the year.

In recent weeks, they’ve been to international travel fairs in Spain and Uganda. They are expected to be at the ITB in Berlin this week too.

This time last year, it was reported that the 15-member Southern African Development Committee which includes Seychelles, endorsed Mzembi’s candidature. An AU Heads-of-State meeting later in July, also endorsed Mzembi.

However, Mzembi who presently chairs the UNWTO regional Commission for Africa, was joined in the race by St Ange who resigned as the minister of tourism, civil aviation, ports and marines late December last year to concentrate on his campaign.

It has been reported that St. Ange initially indicated interest in the UNWTO position months before but backed out. His political party had lost elections in the Seychelles, but the popular St. Ange was able to retain his post which was expanded to include aviation and marines. At about the same time, Mzembi was traveling the globe campaigning for Africa, while still a serving minister in his country.

Although there is no officially recognised system of regional rotation when it comes to filling the post of UNWTO Secretary-General, it is thought that given the right candidate, Africa – which has never held the top post before – could be well-placed to assume leadership of the organisation. Previous leaders of the UNWTO have been from France, Austria, Mexico and currently, Jordan.

It would be tougher for an African candidate to win if votes are split. Of course, this is based on the assumption that member countries are inkling to vote for a candidate from their region, which is by no means cast in stone.

Supporters of Mzembi are of the opinion that St Ange and Seychelles are openly breaking ranks with the SADC and AU. It is believed that unless any of the two candidates enjoy enormous support outside Africa, it would be difficult for either to win.

Mzembi said recently, “In a very real sense, the electoral contest is between a group of candidates from Korea/Spain, Brazil, and Georgia who constitute and who promise little more than a continuation of the status-quo and stand for UNWTO to carry on as before. My candidature is about my promise to bring significant change to the manner in which the UNWTO approaches and delivers upon its mandate.”

According to Mzembi, his assessment is shared by many of those he had engaged in his outreach program. He feels that to surrender the UNWTO Secretary-General-ship to yet another bureaucratic succession will be to condemn the organisation to further peripheralisation and irrelevance within the global system. Mzembi’s words have been reverberating within tourism circles, with claims of racial innuendo.

Speaking with Richard Quest during a recent CNN interview, St Ange countered the notion of block endorsements. “When (Zimbabwean) President Mugabe was head of the African Union, he found a way that Walter Mzembi became the candidate. It is his right to be candidate, but you can’t buy all the people’s rights to be candidates in a democratic state today, to put forward your candidature.”

According to St Ange, the UN is a democratic body and there is need to respect the rights of countries to be candidates and decide who they will elect.

Up Close with St Ange

This reporter has only met one of the candidates. During an encounter with St Ange at the INDABA in Durban a few years ago, he was exasperated at the lack of connectivity between African destinations. “In many cases, one needs a connecting flight through Europe to get from one African country to another. Sometimes you spend two days to reach another African destination; that is four days to and fro. Why would I spend four days to attend a meeting of half a day for example? That is why we all need to come together to address these issues.”

He also said at the time, ““We consider Nigeria as our brother and that is why Nigerians don’t need a visa to visit Seychelles.”

Tourism in Seychelles has been on a steady rise ever since St Ange started out as Director of Tourism Marketing at the Seychelles Tourism Board before being CEO. While he was at STB, the Carnival International de Victoria was launched in 2011, which helped boost tourism to his country and led to him being appointed Minister of Tourism and Culture.

He has become a much sought after keynote speaker for tourism events worldwide, with many wanting to know how Seychelles has consistently punched above its weight, given that the collection of 115 islands only has 90.000 inhabitants.

Visitor arrival records have been set from 2009 onwards, now in excess of 300.000 tourists per annum, a large part attributed to a liberalized aviation regime which St Ange influenced, adding frequencies, larger aircraft and new airlines calling on Mahe’s international airport, while at the same time Air Seychelles prospered too with new passenger records year after year.

The Bantaba in Port Harcourt should – among other things – shed more light on both candidates, enable them present their plans, and help tourism stakeholders, and the 33-member voting body, make an informed decision on the identity of the next UNWTO Secretary-General.