The Business Year

Zurab Pololikashvili, Secretary-General of the World Tourism Organization (UNWTO)

SAUDI ARABIA - Tourism

Zurab Pololikashvili

Secretary-General , World Tourism Organization (UNWTO)

Bio

Zurab Pololikashvili has been Secretary-General of the World Tourism Organization (UNWTO) since January 2018. Prior to this, he worked in a number of high-level roles in both the private and public sectors.  After graduating with a degree in banking, Mr. Pololikashvili gained extensive experience in the private sector, including with a prominent role in one of Georgia’s biggest banks and as CEO of the country’s leading football team, FC Dinamo Tbilisi.

“In Saudi Arabia we will make clear the case for more and smarter investments into tourism so as to accelerate the shift to a more sustainable sector.”

Zurab Pololikashvili, Secretary-General of the World Tourism Organization (UNWTO), talks to TBY about groundbreaking projects in Saudi Arabia and objectives for the UNWTO in the coming years.

Iconic Giga Projects such as The Red Sea and Diriyah reflect Saudi Arabia’s commitment to the development of a new way of thinking and promoting tourism. As far as tourism is concerned, how would you assess the performance of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia?

Zurab Pololikashvili: I first met Minister of Tourism Ahmed Al Khateeb in 2018. Since then, we have worked closely together and achieved a lot. UNWTO was proud to be there when the Kingdom opened up to international tourism for the first time in 2019 and we opened our first Regional Office for the Middle East in Riyadh in 2021. It’s no exaggeration to say that Saudi Arabia is rewriting tourism history. And UNWTO is proud to be a part of it.

The new UNWTO Regional Office for the Middle East was officially inaugurated in Riyadh in 2021. Why has Riyadh been identified as the ideal city to establish the new regional office and what is the importance of hosting such a relevant institution within the global tourism industry?

Zurab Pololikashvili: The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is a clear and strong supporter of tourism. It has identified the sector as a key pillar of economic diversification and opportunity for all. So, the members of the UNWTO Executive Council endorsed the offer of Saudi Arabia to host the first ever UNWTO Regional Office for the Middle East. Saudi Arabia also has a young, talented and motivated workforce and the country is a hub of innovation, embracing new ideas and the digital transformation of every sector, tourism included. This talent and energy are now reflected in the personnel we have welcomed to work in our Regional Office.

How will the Regional Office support the growth of a responsible and sustainable tourism not only in the Kingdom, but also in the entire region?

Zurab Pololikashvili: The UNWTO Regional Office for the Middle East fast becoming a global hub for tourism education, and of tourism for rural development. The work being done from the Regional Office reflects the priorities of UNWTO and our vision for a tourism sector transformed. Above all, if we are serious about growing tourism responsibly and sustainably in the Kingdom and across the whole Middle East region, then we need the people. That’s why tourism education and skills development programmes being run out of the office are so important and will make such a difference. We also need to ensure that tourism’s growth is inclusive and that everybody benefits. One key way of achieving this is by ensuring tourism’s potential as a driver of rural development and opportunity is realized. Again, the Regional Office is leading the way here. As just one example–the Best Tourism Villages by UNWTO initiative launched from Riyadh last year has been a massive success and celebrates and supports those rural destinations where tourism is a real game-changer for local communities.

In June 2022 leaders from the public and private sector gathered at Jeddah Call to Action. Can you elaborate on the highlights of this event?

Zurab Pololikashvili: The Jeddah Call to Action was signed within the framework of the 116th session of the UNWTO Executive Council. By hosting the Council–the second-most important statutory body of our Organization, behind the General Assembly–the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia demonstrated its clear support for our mission. The Jeddah Call to Action recognizes that we need to build a new model of tourism governance if we are to truly transform our sector.

SMEs are the backbone of any national economy. How is UNWTO positioned to foster the development of small enterprises and to support their contribution to the growth of tourism?

Zurab Pololikashvili: UNWTO is the leading champion of small enterprises and entrepreneurs–as you rightly say, they are the backbone of our sector. Small enterprises account for around 80% of all tourism businesses, and in some places, like Small Island Developing States, the proportion is even higher. With this in mind, in September 2022,  UNWTO policy guidance was recognized by G20 Leaders. The Bali Guidelines single out local communities and MSMEs as agents of transformation and call on G20 economies to offer them practical and economic support to fulfil this role. We are also helping small enterprises adapt to a digital world and so become more competitive. The UNWTO Digital Futures Programme aims to reach 2 million SMEs globally, giving them support to make the shift to digitalization, including through tailored training and mentorship initiatives with key big tech partners.

The official celebration of the World Tourism Day will be held in Saudi Arabia, on 27 September 2023. What are the specific themes that will be highlighted during the celebrations?

Zurab Pololikashvili: It will be a real pleasure to be back in Saudi Arabia for the official celebrations of World Tourism Day in 2023. The theme for the year will be ‘Tourism and Green Investments’. We chose this to highlight the importance of boosting investments into tourism. We know that countries, destinations and businesses want to be more sustainably, and our sector is making real progress–just look at the interest in our Glasgow Declaration on Climate Action in Tourism. In the first year since its launch alone, more than 700 businesses, destinations and even governments have signed up. However, we must appreciate that, in many cases, investment is the missing ingredient in turning good intentions into action. So, in Saudi Arabia we will make clear the case for more and smarter investments into tourism so as to accelerate the shift to a more sustainable sector.

What are the short-term targets and objectives set on UNWTO’s agenda?

Zurab Pololikashvili: Our long-term vision is for a tourism sector is resilient, sustainable, inclusive and that works for people and planet. To get on the right track, we need to address some short-term priorities. Firstly–and maybe most importantly–we need to invest in people and skills. Without a skilled and committed workforce, we will fall short achieving any other goals. That’s why we are focusing on education. As of the end of 2022, our Tourism Online Academy for example has welcomed 20,000 students from 190 countries. And in Saudi Arabia we will train 100,000 new tourism workers in partnership with the Ministry of Tourism. We also need to address the climate emergency. A healthy tourism sector is dependent on a healthy planet. And thirdly, we need to rethink tourism governance. We have placed tourism high on the UN agenda–in fact, for the first time it is now a fixed topic of debate at the UN General Assembly and in November 2022, more than 100 countries backed a Resolution that will make sure tourism is considered in the work of every part of the UN’s work.

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