UNWTO Secretary General: Heavyweight vs Lightweight

The Outgoing UNWTO Secretary-General And The Proposed Incoming Secretary-General Elect:
Heavyweights vs lightweights qualified vs unqualified, it is never too hard to spot. We all can understand anyone reaching for a position one is not qualified to perform in. But not if the world’s largest single industry is placed at risk.

Perhaps if one owns a football club, one can take a chance on hiring an individual with zero professional football club management. As was the case with Zurab Pololikashvili, who had a brief stint at a football club, as part of his chequered past.  None of which qualifies him to rather audaciously reach, and it truly is a reach, to lead our United Nations World Tourism Organization (UNWTO).

Is it appropriate for the General Assembly in Chengdu, China to vote into power a novice to global tourism’s top post, a neophyte with absolutely zero tourism experience? 

This is our UNWTO, the respected and esteemed organization that represents the world’s largest single industry. Let’s press the pause button and consider the qualifications of the individual who will either be ratified or rejected at the upcoming 22nd UNWTO General Assembly as the new Secretary-General.

Let’s review two resumes. First the widely admired, well respected, Taleb Rifai.

As UNWTO’s outgoing Secretary-General he has an extraordinary track record and proven stellar leadership with very strong, able hands. This is is  Dr.Rifai’s CV when he was a candidate for the position of UNWTO Secretary General.

  • Mr. Taleb Rifai assumed the functions of Secretary General ad interim of the World  Tourism Organization (UNWTO) since 1st. March. He served as Deputy Secretary General from February 2006 to February 2009
  • Prior to assuming his current post, he was the Assistant Director of the International Labor Organization (ILO) for three consecutive years. His responsibilities included the overall supervision and implementation of the International Labour Standards, as well as advising on labour markets and employments policies, particularly in the Middle East region.
  • From 1999 to 2003, Mr. Rifai served in several ministerial portfolios in the Government of Jordan, first as Minister of Planning and International Cooperation in charge of Jordan’s Development Agenda and bilateral and multilateral relationships with donor countries and agencies. He was later appointed Minister of Information, in which capacity he was in charge of communication and public media and restructured the Jordan Television Network. In 2001, his portfolio was expanded to include the Ministry of Tourism and Antiquity.
  • During his term as Minister of Tourism and Antiquity, Mr. Rifai established Jordan’s first Archaeological Park in the ancient city of Petra in collaboration with UNESCO and the World Bank. He also realized several grand projects in Jerash, the Dead Sea and Wadi Rum. As Minister of Tourism, he was also the Chairman of the Jordan Tourism Board, President of the Ammon School for Tourism and Hospitality and was elected Chairman of the Executive Council of the UNWTO in 2001
  • In the three years preceding his service in the Jordanian Cabinet, Mr. Rifai was the CEO of Jordan’s Cement Company, one of the country’s largest public shareholdings companies with over 4000 employees. During his term he successfully lead and directed the first large scale privatization and restructuring scheme in Jordan by bringing in the French cement company Lafarge in 1998 and continued to serve as CEO under the new Lararge management.
  • From 1993 to 1997, Mr. Rifai was actively involved in policy marking and developing trade and investment strategies, initially in his capacity as Director of Jordan’s Economic Mission to Washington DC promoting trade, investment and economic relations between Jordan and the USA. In 1995 he became the Director General of the newly established Investment Promotion Corporation, responsible for developing and implementing policies aiming at attracting Foreign Direct Investment into Jordan.
  • From 1973 to 1993 Mr.Rifai was involved in research, teaching and practicing Architecture and Urban Design in Jordan and the United States. He was a professor of Architecture at the University of Jordan and taught several courses in Philadelphia, Chicago and Cambridge. As an architect, he won several international competitions and supervised numerous projects, particularly in the rehabilitation of old urban centers.
  • Mr. Rifai received his PhD in Urban Design and Regional Planning from the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia in 1983, his Master’s degree in Engineering and Architecture from the Illinois Institute of Technology (IIT) in Chicago in 1979, and his BSc in Architectural Engineering from the University of Cairo in Egypt in 1983
  • Mr. Rifai, a Jordanian national born in 1949, has travelled and lectured extensively, and received several distinguished decorations including one of Jordan’s highest medals for public service, Al Kawkab, as well as several high-level decorations from France, Italy and other countries. 
  • Mr. Rifai’s background combines solid political experience and technical knowledge in the field of tourism, as well as experience in the work and functioning of International Organizations. His background also provides him with extensive economic, business and academic experience.
  • Throughout his professional career, Mr. Rifai has been a reformer and a consensus builder: Two important qualities in effecting sustainable change. His ability to introduce fresh thinking and to work closely with people in order to ensure buy-in and to achieve enduring reforms is evident in all his endeavours, notably, restructuring the Jordan Television Network, privatizing the Jordan Cement Company and introducing fresh thinking to the UNWTO
  • Having served as Deputy Secretary General of the UNWTO for the last three years, Mr. Rifai has acquired valuable experience and insight regarding the needs and prospects of the UNWTO. He is considering a strong candidate who possesses all the necessary skills, experience and knowledge as well as the capability to introduce much-needed reforms and changes at the UNWTO

Now let’s review Secretary-General Elect, Zurab Pololikashvili’s current resume, which does not reflect much experience within travel or tourism.
A bean counter, a money man, and a former football executive, Pololikashvili is not in the same league as Rifai, by any standards.  The emperor has no clothes it appears.

Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary of Georgia to the Kingdom of Spain, the Principality of Andorra, the People’s Democratic Republic of Algeria and the Kingdom of Morocco Permanent Representative of Georgia to the World Tourism Organization (UNWTO)

Ambassador POLOLIKASHVILI has broad experience of working in both private and public sectors at high-profile positions.

He has extensive diplomatic experience, having represented Georgia to the World Tourism Organization (UNWTO), as well as serving as Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary to the Kingdom of Spain.

He also held a position of the Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs from 2005 to 2006.

2009-2010, Minister of Economic Development of Georgia. As Minister of Economic Development of Georgia, Ambassador Pololikashvili was responsible for overseeing the country’s long-term fiscal growth strategies, for advancing foreign trade and investment policy initiatives, as well as for promoting the development of tourism, infrastructure and transportation sectors.

He was instrumental in launching an innovative policy for the development of tourism in Georgia, prioritizing the sphere on both the government and private sector agendas.

During Ambassador Pololikashvili’s tenure as the Minister of Economic Development, through key policy reforms, marketing activities, improvement of infrastructure and visa liberalization initiatives, Georgia managed to nearly double the annual number of international arrivals, from 1.5 million ( in 2009) to exceeding the 2.8 million mark by 2011.

Those reforms paved the way for sustainable tourism practices in Georgia and poverty alleviation initiatives, placing Georgia among top tourist destinations in the region. Minister Pololikashvili successfully led the economic liberalization processes, introducing more supportive policies for SMEs, and incentive programs to attract foreign investment for development of hard and soft infrastructure.

2006 – 2009 Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary of Georgia to the Kingdom of Spain.

2005 – 2006 Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs of Georgia. In this capacity as Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs of Georgia, he supervised the departments for administrative, budgetary, financial and consular affairs, as well as the Department for Human Resources Management.

Pololikashvili was responsible for ushering in a new phase of more liberal and secure visa regimes, facilitation of processes to ease border crossing procedures, and deepening relations with various international organizations, including the UNWTO.

Experience private sector. Ambassador Pololikashvili’s private sector experience includes several years in the financial and banking sectors, serving as the Manager of International Operations for TBC Bank ( one of the most successful banks in Georgia), Director of TBC Bank’s Central Branch Office (2001-2005) and the Vice President of TBC Group (2010 – 2011) In 2001 – 2011

Ambassador Pololikashvili was CEO of FC Dinamo Tbilisi, the leading professional football team in Georgia. Academic Qualifications. 2008 – 2009 Global Senior Management Program (GSMP), IE Business School, Instituto de Empresa, Madrid, Spain 1994 – 1998

Bachelor’s Degree in Banking, Georgian Technical University, Tbilisi, Georgia.

Personal Data Date of birth: 12 January 1977, Tbilisi, Georgia

Marital status: Married and has three children

Languages: Georgian (native) English, Spanish, and Russian (fluent) French, Japanese and Polish (spoken)

We believe our UNWTO deserves to managed, led and guided by an authentically seasoned tourism veteran, if not star. An individual widely recognized by our industry as being enormously capable of taking the reigns of our UNWTO.

As an industry, with choppy waters and widespread global unrest, we are depending on the upcoming General Assembly to not simply ratify the proposed Secretary-General Elect. One cannot fake or fudge knowledge, talent or authentic leadership.

The waters right now are more than murky for the General Assembly in Chengdu, China next month.

 The presentation of Pololikashvili as Secretary-General Elect is not alone enough to warrant ratification by voting nations.  We urge the voting General Assembly to take a long, hard look at the role of UNWTO Secretary-General. It is important, it is critical.  We need and demand a leader of our UNWTO who will have the vision, intelligence, ability, knowledge, experience, strength, and courage to lead and guide us collectively as an industry.

We’re depending on it.

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