The State Department is exploring the possibility of rejoining the United Nations World Tourism Organization. The reasoning? The administration believes that it “offers great potential to fuel growth in that sector, create new jobs for Americans, and highlight the unmatched range and quality” of United States tourist destinations. There is little evidence to support this belief. The World Tourism Organization describes itself as the “United Nations agency responsible for the promotion of responsible, sustainable, and universally accessible tourism.” However, nearly 20 percent of the United Nations member states have either never joined or dropped out.
Why? Because they 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. Meanwhile, there was little perceived downside to not being a member of this United Nations agency. Australian withdrawal “does not preclude the government from engaging with the organization,” the report noted. Moreover, affiliate membership is “open to any public or private organization” regardless of whether the full country is a member.
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. The current makeup of the World Tourism Organization executive council is unsavory as well, with members including Iran, China, Russia, Congo, Sudan, Zimbabwe, and Saudi Arabia.
What about American tourism? The International Trade Administration reported in 2017 that the United States leads the world for global tourism receipts with 16 percent of total traveler spending. International arrivals reached 50 percent higher in 2017 than in 2000, and international spending was more than five times higher. That strong growth occurred while the United States did not even have membership in this agency.
Foreign tourism 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.
Moreover, 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. The World Tourism Organization has a current list of around 30 such American affiliate members. If membership in the agency were indeed a vital asset, presumably more businesses would then avail themselves of this option.
Although the public reason for joining the World Tourism Organization is to boost the American tourism industry, there may also be some political motivation at play here. The State Department is particularly sensitive to criticism from other countries following decisions by the administration to withdraw from the United Nations Human Rights Council, the Paris climate agreement, and the Iran nuclear deal. The desire to show that the United States is willing to increase its multilateral engagement is quite palpable.
The cost of engaging through the World Tourism Organization probably seems small in the eyes of the State Department. While annual fees would run less than $1 million, wasting tax dollars is objectionable. Rejoining this agency will not dampen criticism of decisions by the administration. Our country has tried that tack before. In 2002, in an attempt to allay criticism over the Iraq War and decisions not to ratify the Kyoto Protocol and the Rome Statute, the United States said it would rejoin the United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Organization. The tactic failed utterly.
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.
This piece originally appeared in The Hill on 6/24/19