Spain Opposes Saudi Push to ‘Snatch’ World Tourism Organization

Will the World Tourism Organization replace Madrid for Riyadh and move its headquarters from the Iberian Peninsula? Not if Spain has a say in the situation.

Though everything is still in the zone of speculations and unconfirmed rumor with regard to Riyadh’s intentions and efforts to relocate the UNWTO, Spain is adamant in its intention to prevent Saudis and is making major diplomatic efforts in that direction.

Spain’s Foreign Minister Jose Manuel Albares went as far to convey Spain’s opposition to the alleged efforts to his Saudi counterpart, Euractiv reports.

The rumors were reportedly confirmed by several tourism industry chiefs, but a senior Saudi tourism ministry official denied any ongoing negotiations about moving the UN agency to Riyadh where – to add oil to the fire- it recently set up a regional office.

Ambitious Saudi plans

The secretary-general of the Mesa del Turismo industry body, Carlos Abella, says there’s quite a lot of information now to suggest Saudi Arabia’s signaled interest is more than serious despite the lack of a formal proposal.

The World Tourism Organization – UN-run intergovernmental body that promotes tourism and facilitates international trade between nations – is based in the world’s number 2 tourist destination’s capital Madrid since it was founded in 1975.

It is also the only UN agency headquartered in the Iberian Peninsula, Euractiv says.

Several Spain’s centrist MEPs warned what is at stake in a letter to Brussels, stressing that UNWTO’s relocation would be a serious blow to the image of EU, which is home to three of the world’s top five tourist destinations, and a real reputational problem for Europe as a tourist power.

Signatory Jose Ramon Bauza further stressed that it would mean losing diplomatic weight at the institutional level.

Diplomatic battle

Spain believes that the move is in line with the Kingdom’s ambitious plans to shift away from its dependence on oil and become an international tourist destination that will attract 100 million visitors by 2030.

Riyadh has unveiled a series of multi-billion-dollar projects to open up the country to tourists in the last couple of years.

The UNWTO refused to comment the rumors, but it’s worth nothing that such decision cannot be made by the agency itself but by its 159 member states that are to meet in November for the biennial General Assembly.

According to Abella, who does not rule out a vote on the matter, any such move would have to be approved by two-thirds of the states, or 106 members”,  which seems a lot but still poses significant risk since Saudi Arabia carries a lot of weight.

Meanwhile Madrid, irritated by Riyadh’s apparent designs on poaching the UNWTO, has thrown itself into a diplomatic battle with bilateral talks and attempts to sweet-talk the UNWTO with Albares ruling out “even the possibility” the agency could leave Madrid.

Madrid’s Mayor Jose Luis Martinez-Almeida has also stressed following talks with UNWTO head Zurab Pololikashvili that Spain will continue with the necessary efforts to keep the headquarters of this UN agency.

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