Next year’s election for a United Nations World Tourism Organisation (UNWTO) secretary-general is likely to put an African at the head of the organisation for the first time in 43 years, reports Baffour Ankomah.
Since the establishment of the United Nations World Tourism Organisation (UNWTO) in 1974 as one of the 17 specialised agencies of the United Nations, no African has become its secretary-general. Almost all the geographical areas of the world have each produced a secretary-general, except Africa. In fact in 42 years, three secretaries-general have come from Europe, while one each has come from the Americas Africa’s glaring absence at the top of the UNWTO is, however, likely to change at the next elective UNWTO General Assembly, to be held in Chengdu,China, in September 2017, because the continent is preparing a candidate of pedigree for the position, in the person of Zimbabwe’s tourism and hospitality industry minister, Dr Walter Mzembi, 52.
Described by President Robert Mugabe as his best minister three years ago, Dr Mzembi has already received the full endorsement of the President and Government of Zimbabwe as well as the Southern African
Development Community (SADC) and the African Union (AU) as the continent’s united candidate. As Juergen Steinmetz of ETN Global Travel Industry News puts it: “The world platform is changing fast, and after all, this [continental approval] may very well play to his strategic advantage over time. Africa is now being taken seriously in the world, and the minister’s approval is an endorsement not only for him but for an Africa that has learned and now knows how to speak with one powerful voice.”
The support of the entire continent has greatly strengthened the hand of Dr Mzembi to carry the torch of Africa to the portals of the UNWTO. The current secretary-general, Dr Taleb Rifai of Jordan, retires in September 2017.
Already Dr Mzembi has brought his immense expertise in tourism to bear on the African Union’s Agenda 2063, which, strangely, did not initially consider tourism highly as a major driver of the continent’s development.
But after inviting Dr Mzembi over to Addis Ababa to work with the AU for some weeks earlier this year, Agenda 2063 is now bristling with tourism credentials worthy of Africa’s aspirations. This is the kind of knowhow Dr Mzembi hopes to bring to global tourism if elected as secretary-general.
A world leader
The UNWTO is the UN’s specialised agency charged with the promotion of responsible, sustainable and universally accessible tourism. Established in 1974, it is the leading international organisation that promotes tourism as a driver of economic growth, inclusive development, and environmental sustainability.
With headquarters in the Spanish capital, Madrid, the UNWTO also generates market knowledge, fosters tourism education and training, and works to make tourism an effective tool for development through technical assistance projects in over 100 countries worldwide.
Its membership covers 157 countries, 6 territories, and 480 affiliate groups representing the private sector, educational institutions, tourism associations, and local tourism authorities.
The supreme organ of the UNWTO is the General Assembly held every two years. It is the most important global meeting of senior tourism officials and high-level representatives of the private sector. Every four years the General Assembly elects a secretary general. In 42 years, the General Assembly has only been held thrice in Africa – in Egypt (1995), Senegal (2005) and jointly by Zimbabwe and Zambia in 2013.
Interestingly, the General Assembly hosted by Zimbabwe and Zambia was described by Dr Taleb Rifai as “the best attended ever” in the history of the organisation. And guess who was at the fulcrum? Dr Walter Mzembi, in his position as Zimbabwe’s tourism minister, member of the UNWTO’s Executive Council, and chairman of the UNWTO’s Commission for Africa.
He is a man who knows his onions. A superb communicator and peace builder, Dr Mzembi hopes, if elected, to increase tourism’s contribution to the global GDP from the current 9% to 15% over his tenure. He is quick to point out that the application of intelligent taxation in a sector that is already heavily taxed will unlock the plateau of single-digit growth that it has been registering over the years. He says the world has the choice of creative taxation or taxing tourism to cooperation while harnessing the power of informa- death (which is what is happening at the moment), but for him the future lies in intelligent taxation that does not constitute entry barriers but leads to incentivised travel.
Dr Mzembi hopes for universal state membership of the UNWTO from the present 157 nations and an equal growth of affiliate membership. One of his main goals is to consolidate the successes achieved so far in global tourism by the current secretary-general, Dr Rifai, especially in the area of open skies, open borders, and visa liberalisation which is now being threatened by international terrorism.
Dr Rifai goes out after succeeding in placing tourism on the global agenda with the declaration of 2017 as the “international year of sustainable tourism for development”. Dr Mzembi hopes to continue to build on the good works of Dr Rifai by positioning tourism high on the world’s development agenda while promoting growth with equity.
He argues that closing borders and impeding freedom of travel in response to international terrorism and refugee crises is not going to be a solution. What is needed while noting the concerns, he says, will be to improve international intelligence and security agency cooperation while harnessing the power of information technology as part of the strategy to mitigate the challenges and emerge with safe and seamless borders.
Improving the figures
At the moment, Africa and the Middle East share only 3% to 5% of global tourism apiece while over 50% is attributed to Europe, with the balance shared equally between the Americas, Asia, and the Pacific.
Individually, the USA is the largest travel and tourism economy in the world, earning $1.4 trillion a year out of 13.5 million domestic jobs in the sector. Remarkably, Africa’s share of the global 288 million tourism jobs is only 21 million, just about 6 million above the USA’s share. It shows how behind the continent of Africa is in terms of global tourism performance.
It is exactly this situation that Dr Mzembi hopes to correct as he sharpens the sector’s intervention in the AU’s Agenda 2063.
Currently world tourism contributes approximately 10% in terms of global GDP (an equivalent of $7.2 trillion), and accounts for 288 million jobs worldwide, 6% of all exports, 4% of all investment, and since 1950 the sector has seen 25 million international tourists increasing exponentially to 1.2 billion in 2015. Estimates show that this will increase to 1.8 billion by 2030.
Dr Mzembi is optimistic that, if elected, he will be able to drive this agenda to surpass the projected 1.8 billion target, especially with the expected growth from the BRICS countries. He marvels at how China and India have raised new middle classes of about 600 million people from whom new international source markets will develop. Already China alone accounts for 120 million in outbound tourism and there are even brighter years ahead.
Another of Dr Mzembi’s dearest wishes is to use tourism in the promotion of peace, security and social harmony, and steer tourism development towards climate change adaptation and mitigation, and the reduction of poverty among communities.
He argues for the alignment of the tourism-specific Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) 8, 12 and 14 to regional goals and visions as in Agenda 2063 for Africa, hence his most recent forays into the African Union. Developed by the United Nations, SDG Goal 8 is about decent work and economic growth; Goal 12 is about responsible consumption and production; and Goal 14 is about life below water.
Dr Mzembi is a strong advocate of tourism diplomacy, a philosophy he successfully adopted right at the beginning of his ministerial tenure in 2009 in bringing Zimbabwe out of international isolation with the resultant election of the country into the UNWTO.
Executive Council in the same year, and his convincing case for the joint hosting of the UNWTO General Assembly by Zimbabwe and Zambia in 2013. This is arguably the highest endorsement of Zimbabwe by the international community given where it was coming from with EU and US sanctions imposed on it in 2001.
Dr Mzembi is now advancing a philosophy of how tourism can be used to secure global peace through citizen diplomacy, highlighting that the world’s current 1.2 billion travellers are potential peace ambassadors. He advocates for inclusivity, reaching out to the countries that are now not members of the UNWTO, especially the USA, UK, Canada and Australia amongst others, arguing that without them at the table world peace is not complete.
Dr Mzembi was elected to the Zimbabwean Parliament in 2004 as MP for the Masvingo South constituency. He held the position of Portfolio Committee chairperson for Agriculture, Lands and Resettlement in his first term in Parliament. He was subsequently appointed head of the Zimbabwe Delegation to the ACP/EU Joint Parliamentary Assembly in Europe (2004-2007). This gave him substantial experience in multilateral institutions.
Dr Mzembi originally trained as a mechanical engineer, but now holds a doctorate in business management, and a masters in business administration and production management. He is a registered professional engineer with the Engineering Council of Zimbabwe and a member of the Engineering Institute of Zambia. He is also a Fellow of the Zimbabwe Institute of Engineers.
He came to politics already a successful businessman, having held various positions in both the public and private sectors in Zimbabwe, and also running his own companies.
Currently the longest-serving tourism minister in Africa, Dr Mzembi is already a man very experienced in the UNWTO leadership, having served as a member of the UNWTO Executive Council from 2009-2013, chairman of the UNWTO Commission for Africa from 2013 to date, co-president of the 20th Session of the UNWTO General Assembly, and three-time president of the Africa Travel Association, which has since been acquired by the Washington-based Corporate Council on Africa.
A celebrated minister at home and abroad, Dr Mzembi is the recipient of many awards and accolades, among them the Zimbabwe public service manager of the year 2012, Africa Investor magazine’s African tourism minister of the year 2011, three African leadership awards in branding and inspirational leadership; and a tourism excellence award given by India in 2012. In the same year he received the African Achievers Awardfor Tourism Excellence in Kenya. In July 2016 he was recognised as a Tourism Leader by the International Coalition of Tourism Partners (ICTP).
Under his leadership, Zimbabwe was conferred with the 2014-15 World Best Destination and the Best Preferred Cultural Destination awards by the Bucharest-based European Council on Tourism and Trade. In January 2015, The New York Times’ survey on the “World’s 52 Must Visit Destinations” scored Zimbabwe number 14, citing it as a “once avoided-now a must visit” destination, a rating largely attributed to the re-engagement, rebranding, and marketing process of Dr Mzembi.
Besides, he is an accomplished intellectual listed at the London Speaker Bureau, as well as being a board member of the Berlin-based Institute of Cultural Diplomacy. He is also an Academician of Honor of the European Tourism Academy based in Bucharest, a recognition given him in appreciation of his exper-
tise, innovation, and creativity in leveraging tourism and conservation of natural resources for sustainable growth and development.
Dr Mzembi’s activities with the London Speaker Bureau have taken him on speaking tours at various institutions and forums, including Oxford University and Chatham House in the UK; New York State University, Ohio State University, Corporate Council on Africa, International Republican Institute, and the National Democratic Institute – all in the USA.
In 2015, Dr Mzembi was elected as the chairperson of the SADC Committee of Ministers Responsible for Tourism. At a time when others had wanted to collapse the Regional Tourism Organisation of Southern Africa (RETOSA), Dr Mzembi worked hard to save it, because he is a strong advocate of regional integration.
He sees a future where the Americas would only be complete after the integration of North America to the South in terms of membership of the UNWTO and the removal of travel barriers.
He hopes that the gains of integration, such as the good benchmark of seamless travel within Europe which the world has been following, are not undermined or reversed by short-termism in terms of the response to emerging crises like the current refugee problem in the EU and the soft-targeting of tourism by international terrorist organisations.
With the enormous challenges currently facing the industry in terms of global security, Juergen Steinmetz of ETN speaks for many people when he says: “It will take a special type of leader for the UNWTO post. Mzembi is known to bring fresh and sometimes out-of-the-box ideas to the table and may just be the man for this job.”
New source markets
One of the tragedies of tourism, according to Dr Mzembi, has been the inability to unpack it beyond its perceived leisure definition and make it relevant domestically to populations in a manner where it is sufficiently funded as an economic tool for taking people out of poverty.
He argues that governments must make it a priority to raise people out of the bottom base into the middle class which can afford tourism products, citing the example of China, India, and Brazil, which he proffers as growth solutions to international tourism.
These, he concludes, are the emerging source markets of the world.
That notwithstanding, he says domestic tourism must be developed to a point where it mitigates the vagaries of the international source markets while growing organically into trans-frontier or regional products. He argues that because of the high leakages in the sector in the absence of accurate accounting systems, going regional keeps the cash flows inside – something Europe has been doing so successfully over the last five decades.
In this regard, Dr Mzembi is championing at the AU, through a conceived continental tourism policy, a “Visit Africa Campaign” to plug the leakages. This logic, he posits, applies to all the UNWTO regional commissions.
During his tenure as Zimbabwe’s tourism minister, Dr Mzembi has grown domestic tourism to become the highest contributor (11.8%) to national GDP, with a projected growth of 4.1% for 2016, ahead of mining, manufacturing and agriculture.
A man of variegated experience, he has been described by a fellow minister as “a visionary leader whose potential can only be fully tapped at the highest level in the tourism sector”. No wonder the Zimba-
bwean government has embraced his tourism vision “5:5:15:2020”, interpreted to mean 5 million arrivals, 5 billion US dollars in revenue, and 15% contribution to GDP by the year 2020.
A competent candidate
Unveiling Dr Mzembi’s candidature officially in Ha-rare in early April (his candidature is being run as a Special National Project in the Office of the President and Cabinet), Zimbabwe’s information minister, Dr Christopher Mushohwe, described him as “one of Zimbabwe’s best to the world” who was ready to serve at the global level.
“The Government of Zimbabwe, as an active member of the UNWTO,” Dr Mushohwe said, “has a triedand tested candidate for the position of secretary-general of the UNWTO that falls vacant in 2017. Hiscredentials are impressive, so we have no doubt as the Government of Zimbabwe that we are offering to the world one of our best for service to the international community.”
Dr Mushohwe continued: “We humbly offer our candidate and in this case, Zimbabwe’s best to the world. As a country, we are committed to the growth of global tourism, and are convinced that Dr Mzembi will acquit himself if given the honour. We say to our candidate, go yonder and serve the world. We are confident the international community will support you.”
Replying, Dr Mzembi explained that his candidature was in response to a clarion call and overtures made by UNWTO member countries. “I wish to confirm and accept very humbly this honour that has been bestowed on me by the government of Zimbabwe.
I had the pleasure of engaging President Mugabe on this subject and he gave me his absolute assurance that he is with me and he is with you as Team Zimbabwe in this campaign.”
Having already secured the support of other UNWTO member countries and Executive Council members, Dr Mzembi stands tall, if not taller, among the contestants for the secretary-general position.
He comes as a candidate of merit who can be favourably assessed on his own competence, and is going to be a new generational deal-broker for Africa and the rest of the world. He will be a person in Madrid that Africa can trust and the rest of the world can understand.
In this sense, there is no better candidate than Dr Mzembi, who has successfully demonstrated how to turn adversity to opportunity by getting Zimbabwe to host the 20th UNWTO General Assembly in 2013, and making it the best attended ever. He is a man Africa and the world can do business with, as his candidature represents a view from outside the UNWTO instead of a continuity from inside which the agency risks perpetuating via bureaucratic succession. – NewAfrican