In Baku, Azerbaijan a few weeks ago, at a meeting of the Executive Council of the United Nations World Tourism Organization (UNWTO)—a gathering that, otherwise, was so unremarkable in its content or in anything that it did that the session received absolutely no attention in the travel trade media anywhere—the U.S. government indicated that it is exploring the possibility of re-joining the UN entity, which is responsible for the promotion of responsible, sustainable and accessible tourism worldwide.
The United States has not belonged to WTO for decades and has been critical, over the years, of the actions of the agency for a number of reasons, not the least of which is its highly un-democratic membership and dues policy. While membership levies on large nations like the U.S. are assessed primarily on the basis of population, every nation has only one vote, as do such microstates such as San Marino and Timor-Leste. Over the years, some U.S. allies, such as Canada, Australia and the UK have also dropped their membership in WTO for various reasons.
For some in the world tour and travel community, such an attitude toward the global organization does not help the overall industry and, indeed, discourages cooperation—factors that critics say hurts the U.S. in maintaining or growing its share of international tourism arrivals.
In the United States, the organization has been, like the UN itself, a target of foreign policy conservatives, who have vilified it as a bloated and hardly essential international bureaucratic institution that is useless, as far as U.S. interests are concerned.
The history of the U.S. position notwithstanding, there it was in Baku: A high-level U.S. official was seemingly making the case for the USA to rejoin the Madrid-based United Nations World Tourism Organization.
What makes it especially interesting is who was making the case and the possible connection there is to the U.S. tour and travel industry. It was Emma Boyle, assistant to the President and Principal Deputy Chief of Staff in the Executive Office of the President—the de facto top aide to Mick Mulvaney, chief of staff—that is, one who likely spends some face-to-face time with President Donald Trump.
In a news release summarizing the Baku meeting, WTO said the following: “(Boyle) announced before the Council that ‘the United States is exploring the possibility of re-joining the World Tourism Organization,’ and noted that her country looks forward to working with UNWTO ‘to encourage tourism around the world.’ … Quoting President Trump, she said that ‘America First does not mean America alone,’ and added: ‘We believe that there is tremendous potential for UNWTO, with its focus on job creation and education, to be a beacon of innovation for other international organizations.’ ”
Boyle came to the White House with Mulvaney from the Office of Management and Budget, where she was chief of staff. She also served as a legislative assistant to Mulvaney when the latter was a Congressman from South Carolina. Boyle also served on the staff of U.S. Sen. Pat Toomey (R-Pa.) for several years.
Of interest in her resumé in Washington, D.C. is a tenure of about three years (2014-2017) during which she was a lobbyist for the Ford Motor Company. At just about the same time, Tori Barnes, executive vice president, public affairs & policy for the U.S. Travel Association—in effect, the top lobbyist for the top lobbying organization of the U.S. travel industry—was nearing the end of a stretch (2003-2017) as a lobbyist for General Motors. It is more than just likely that Boyle and Barnes, lobbyists for the top two U.S. auto makers, worked together on areas of mutual interest to the automobile industry.
What all of the above suggests is: (1) Surprisingly, the U.S. government and its President, thought to be dismissive of the work of most international government organizations, is apparently pushing for a greater role in the global tour and travel industry apparatus; and (2) The U.S. travel industry, through its top lobbyist, is well-positioned and well-connected to help that policy direction take effect.
Still, not all agree that joining WTO would be good for the USA: A few days after the Baku meeting, in a screed titled, Why America Should Not join the United Nations on World Tourism, Brett Schaefer and James Carafano, two contributors from the Heritage Foundation—a very conservative Washington, D.C. think tank—laid out a case against re-joining WTO. Some of their points follow:
—Although the Trump Administration believes that “United Nations agency responsible for the promotion of responsible, sustainable, and universally accessible tourism,” nearly 20 percent of the United Nations member states have either never joined or dropped out.
—These non-members have concluded that the costs outweigh the benefits. Australia, for instance, withdrew from the World Tourism Organization in 2015 after determining that the agency was unresponsive to its needs and increasingly expensive.
—There are also questions about the accountability and judgment of the World Tourism Organization. In 2009, the United Nations Joint Inspection Unit found the agency “does not possess any internal audit, inspection, evaluation, investigation, or monitoring capabilities.” Canada withdrew in 2012 after the agency appointed the notorious Zimbabwean ruler Robert Mugabe as a global leader on tourism.
—If there is a tangible benefit to the American tourism industry from this agency, it can be realized without the United States itself joining. American businesses and organizations can join the agency as affiliate members if they so desire, regardless of United States membership.
—Foreign tourism (to the U.S.) has declined slightly over the last two years. The reasons for this are complicated, including a decline in the favorable view of the United States held by foreign tourists, fatigue with traditional American tourist destinations, and the strength of the dollar. The tourism lobby has been pressing the administration to do something to address this decline. But if the United States joins the World Tourism Organization, that action will do nothing to reverse this trend nor is it likely to placate the industry.
—If President Trump is under the illusion that rejoining the World Tourism Organization might win some diplomatic brownie points, he should read its “strong condemnation“ of his visa policy or its “firm resentment” of his decision to restore restrictions on travel to Cuba. This is not a receptive audience of the administration. Rejoining the World Tourism Organization would neither benefit the American tourism industry nor reap a diplomatic windfall for the United States. American taxpayers deserve better than to witness their money squandered again on this unnecessary organization.