Leading the Global Tourism Sector towards Recovery; Zurab Pololikashvili walks the talk


It’s getting boring having to overly elaborate on the exceedingly troubling effects of the coronavirus on the tourism sector but as it has always been the way of telling the story well, one needs to help readers appreciate the impacts from a historical perspective.

None of the previous global crises at least in the last 50 years can be compared to this ferocious coronavirus pandemic. Its impacts are mind-blowing and nothing short of innovative and progressive leadership can chart a path that at least exudes some confidence in the tourism sector.

Fact Sheet:
According to the latest tourism data from the World Tourism Organization (UNWTO), destinations welcomed 900 million fewer international tourists between January and October when compared with the same period of 2019. This translates into a loss of US$ 935 billion in export revenues from international tourism, more than 10 times the loss in 2009 under the impact of the global economic crisis.

We still couldn’t believe we had to wait for a minimum of 6 months to be back on the road/air as covid-19 wreaked havoc and still on a trajectory that threatens not only lives but economic sustenance. With tourism accounting for 1 in every tenth job in the world rightly depicts the distress the tourism ecosystem is going through now.

In all of these, one defining trait needed to navigate the situation is leadership. Whether you look at it from the national, organizational, or multilateral levels, it was the real McCoy needed to sail this unprecedented situation.

Decisive First Step!
Following the declaration of the epidemic as a pandemic, the Secretary-General of UNWTO Zurab Pololikashvili and his team at the UN Tourism body conferred with the leadership of sister UN body, the World Health Organization (WHO) in Switzerland to explore ways of keeping the sector safe and also protecting the sector.

The First meeting with UNWTO led by the Secretary General and the World Health Organization in Geneva

UNWTO Secretary-General Pololikashvili said: “The COVID-19 outbreak is first and foremost a public health issue. UNWTO is following the lead of WHO, with whom we have enjoyed an excellent working relationship from day one. This meeting reaffirmed the importance of strong cooperation and international solidarity and I welcome the Director-General’s recognition of the role tourism can play both now and in the future.”

The outcome of the meeting was the advisory from the UNWTO to the tourism community to heed government advise and stay home. The #stayhome #Travel tomorrow ignited interest from the global tourism sector and we saw a number of innovations especially virtually navigate the precarious situation.

The Global Tourism Crisis Committee was convened by the UNWTO to bring together other international partners to not only lobby governments but to be mindful of the impacts of tourism in their decisions to save the sector. It made significant progress, Zurab Pololikashvili as the captain of the UNWTO boat, went further to hold virtual and in-person meetings with high-level organizations such as the European Commission, EU Parliament among other international bodies to ensure that tourism is considered and made a key part of recovery of national plans. The EU Commission subsequently allocated 50 million euros as an initial budget for the tourism sector.

High-Level Engagements and In-Person Visits

The Secretary General of UNWTO Zurab Pololikashvili in an elbow shake with President of Namibia Dr Hage Geingob during the UNWTO’s visit to Namibia

In the midst of the pandemic, virtually all events globally were reduced to online engagements. UNWTO was not immune from the devastating effects of the pandemic and in proactive response adapted and convened 4 of its commissions online with the tacit support of its member states. Never was the organization left out of what was to be the ‘’new normal’’ of bringing together people to still chart a course to ensure it is ready for the restart.

One great hallmark of leadership is to be able to step forward to make bold decisions in times of crisis. Hardly would a week pass without receiving emails and news reports of furlough and outright closure of tourism enterprises.

Inspection of UNWTO’s historic office establishment in Saudi Arabia

One bold decision taken by the Zurab led UNWTO was to hold the Executive Council as it was safe and responsible to do. The 112th meeting was conducted in a hybrid format with over 170 participants attending. Naysayers and pessimists couldn’t stop giving the Madrid-based organization a thumbs up for going ahead to show the way for this sector.

A very dynamic Zurab initiated steps to engage the highest leadership of national governments and regional blocs to make tourism part of its recovery plans. He added that they should move beyond words to show by action. The only way he believed tourism could uphold its envious record as a very resilient sector. The visits took him to Italy (The first worst affected European Country), Spain, Saudi Arabia, (Middle East,) France & Brussels (Europe) Egypt (North Africa), Tunisia, Namibia (Sub Saharan Africa), and Brazil in South America. Leaders of the aforementioned countries committed to tourism and made pronouncements to that effect.

Tourism Recovery Technical Assistance
One of the main areas that the UN Tourism body supports in helping develop the tourism sector is in the area of technical assistance where UNWTO avails expertise and support to make tourism a good force for good. It stood up very tall to be counted even in difficult times by developing the “COVID-19 Tourism Recovery Technical Assistance Package”. The package offered guidance to both public and private tourism sector stakeholders in their crisis response by, firstly, outlining UNWTO’s range of technical assistance, and, secondly, detailing potential areas of intervention, including impact assessment, roles and responsibilities.

The assistance is not just to tick the box but well-structured to help address issues now and post the pandemic. It is themed on 3 pillars, Economic Recovery, Marketing and Promotion, and Institutional Strengthening & Building Resilience.


Innovative Ideas to Accelerate Recovery
Necessity, they say is the mother of all inventions. The UNWTO as part of its digital transformation has seen major and landmark progress to change the face of tourism. It’s only got better during the pandemic. The UNWTO in collaboration with media giant CNN launched the inspiration brand Africa campaign.

The organization launched the Healing Solutions for Tourism Challenge in May 2020 to invite the most disruptive Startups, entrepreneurs and drive solutions to mitigate Covid-19 impact on tourism which received over 1000 applications with more than 134 coming from African countries.

It also launched the #MyAfrica Campaign to help tell unique tourism stories on the continent.

As Tourism gathers steam to restart the sector, the UN tourism body has teamed up with CNN again to launch the #RestartTourism campaign. Leadership in all of this is key and the main catalyst for change. Mentions can be made of healing solutions challenge, hospitality challenge among many others.

Market Intelligence
Data’s relevance has never been the topmost priority than now. The fluid situation required up to the minute information/data to afford the sector to plan ahead. Once again UNWTO was the reference point of data collection and most remarkably launched the first global Tourism Recovery dashboard. It is worthy to make the point that, the UN Tourism body is one of the few international organizations which have led and shown dexterity in its work during this unprecedented time. https://www.unwto.org/unwto-tourism-dashboard

Capacity Building
Preparing well to restart tourism was the new normal. Capacity building to await a restart never eluded the world tourism organization and helped member states to be prepared and respond accordingly. A countless number of webinars were organized to help the sector prepare well for the recovery.

Bitter, Smear and Outright Lies!
History at least is always there to guide us as we chart a new path to explore and make our world better. It is normal to disagree on the ways to become better but certainly, you need to be called out when you use a medium to smear, mudsling, and put out utter lies and fiction of people’s own imagination. Some industry and previously respected sector players have cowardly resorted to cheap lies and shenanigans all in an attempt to ruin and tarnish the image of UNWTO by extension the leadership of the Georgian Diplomat. It’s even more depressing when former occupants of the high office have joined the cacophony of noise to throw out untruths all in a bid to cause disaffection for Zurab and his administration.

I usually don’t respond to such gibberish but a “Lie told thousand times have the propensity of being a believable deception “

As an African focused media, we are happy to report on the leap strides made in the continent’s tourism development though a lot more is desired to ensure that it touches the lives of our people positively. Far from hunky-dory but same people today making noise cannot point to even a single sector changing reforms they undertook when they had the privilege of bringing change.

It is weak and warped logic for anyone to suggest that a dynamic industry like tourism resorts to lethargic ways of governance at this precarious time.

The dogs bark, but the caravan goes on.

As we count a few hours to see the back of 2020, recovery of the tourism sector will come with the support of all and sundry and that should be our preoccupation.

Happy Tourism Year 2021!

An editorial by VoyagesAfriq Travel Media. VoyagesAfriq is Africa’s leading tourism portal


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