Friday, August 30, 2013

Reflecting on the 20th UNWTO General Assembly

Today was the final day of the 20th UNWTO General Assembly.  After six days of meetings, resolutions, voting and social events the delegates seemed quite pleased with themselves regarding their accomplishments.  Throughout the week frequent reference was made to the UNWTO’s priorities: air connectivity, travel facilitation and youth tourism.  Boiled down this means that member states have agreed to make airline services and airports more widely available in order to allow tourists easier transport into and around their countries.  There is also a big push to capitalize on the youth market.  According to UNWTO statistics, youth travelers comprise 300 million of the worldwide 1 billion international tourists annually.

“Travel facilitation” was the phrase used in reference to visas.  This discussion seemed the most unrealistic to accomplish as so many visa regulations are based on reciprocity, meaning it becomes a “we won’t let you play with our toys unless we can play with yours” argument.  For instance, only 14 African countries allow Chinese citizens to enter their borders without a visa.  Those 14 countries are actually quite generous. The remaining countries in Africa require Chinese citizens to have visas to enter simply because China requires visas from nationals of ALL African nations.  In order for the UNWTO to truly accomplish their goal of easier travel facilitation someone, or more accurately, some country, will need to blink and open it’s borders first.  Perhaps when that happens things will become a bit easier.
Speaking of cross-border travel, this week was a first for Zambia and Zimbabwe.  Since both countries were hosting the UNWTO conference they suspended visa regulations this week for conference attendees only.  Typically the border between the two countries is closed, thus anyone entering either country must carry a passport and possess a valid visa.  That may actually change soon.  The Kavango Zambezi Transfrontier Conservation Area (KAZA) is an organization sponsored by the World Bank and incorporating Angola, Botswana, Namibia, Zambia and Zimbabwe.  In addition to the environmental and wildlife initiatives, KAZA is attempting to make travel between the five countries easier.  In an effort to do so the Victoria Falls border is scheduled to be “opened” in January 2014 to encourage travel to national parks in both countries.  If that pilot test is successful KAZA anticipates within the next year one visa will be issued and encompass all five countries.

Overall the UNWTO conference as an event was quite successful, by African standards.  I say that because as a person who lives here my standards are a little different from those of outsiders.  I don’t believe I attended a single session or event which actually began, or ran, on time; but that’s normal here.
The same can be said for some of the organization.  Exiting the closing ceremony I had to leave the hotel in Zambia where it was being held and get transportation back to my hotel in Zimbabwe.  I was instructed to take a shuttle to a neighboring hotel where a bus was allegedly waiting.  After arriving at the second hotel the staff put me back on the shuttle and sent me to the entrance gate of the property where I was told I could catch a ride.  When I arrived at the gate there was a group of about 8 press correspondents who had been walked to four different buses and still couldn’t get anyone to help them. I joined them as we were taken to yet another bus.  The bus driver refused to take us anywhere.  As we walked back to the main gate all 8 press correspondents (none of which were from Africa) voiced their frustration and exasperation at the lack of organization.  When one of them asked what I thought all I could respond was, “TIA. This is Africa.”

Despite these challenges, I would have to say Zambia and Zimbabwe certainly made a valiant effort.  Back in April Zimbabwe was facing serious financial trouble and there were talks that it was soliciting other African countries for a bailout.  I asked several representatives from neighboring countries whether any of them had provided the money Zimbabwe needed and they all said, “No.” But you know who did? Who else? China. China gave Zimbabwe a $150 million loan.
And I can tell you exactly where that $150 million went. When I arrived at the Zimbabwe airport last week there was a full sized bus specifically for UNWTO delegates to transport us to our hotels.  It looked brand new.  I mention full sized and brand new because the few buses you see in southern Africa are often old, without air conditioning, smaller than what we are accustomed to in the West and generally filthy.  As I entered the bus I noticed indeed it was brand new, as evidenced by the fact the plastic seat coverings from the factory had not yet been removed. A few days later I saw a police convoy.  The motorcycle officers were on BMW motorcycles, while again, I saw 6 police cars, all with the plastic seat coverings still intact.  If Zimbabwe has nothing else to show from the conference, they now have a fleet of vehicles other African countries will no doubt be jealous of.

Despite Zimbabwe’s recent money troubles, accusations of human rights violations and alleged election rigging, I think they did the best job they could with the resources they had.  The one aspect I think they did excel at was human resources.  Both countries brought in hundreds of temporary workers for the two weeks surrounding the conference.  All these temporary workers were Zambian and Zimbabwean citizens who came to Livingstone City and Victoria Falls, respectively, and were responsible for assisting the conference attendees.  Some were elementary school teachers from Harare who were earning a little extra money before starting the new school year next Tuesday.  A few were business owners who took time off to “see all the excitement” and one I spoke to was a mother.  I just hope once the last UNWTO delegate leaves they use those shiny new buses to take them all home.

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