Why America should not join the United Nations on world tourism

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The State Department is now exploring the possibility of rejoining the United Nations World Tourism Organization. The stated reason? 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.” Yet 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. Australian withdrawal “does not preclude the government from engaging with the organization,” the findings noted. Moreover, affiliate membership is “open to any public or private organization” regardless of whether the full country is a member or not.


There are also questions about accountability and judgment. In 2009, the United Nations Joint Inspection Unit reported that the organization “does not possess any internal audit, inspection, evaluation, investigation, or monitoring capabilities.” Canada withdrew in 2012 after the agency appointed 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, Sudan, Zimbabwe, and Saudi Arabia.

But what about the American tourism sector? The International Trade Administration reported in 2017 that the United States led the world in “global tourism receipts” with nearly a 16 percent share of world traveler spending. International arrivals were about 50 percent higher in 2017 than in 2000, and international spending was more than five times higher. That growth occurred while the United States was not a member of the World Tourism Organization.

Foreign tourism in the United States 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 frequent American tourist destinations, and the strength of the dollar. The American tourism lobby has been pressing the Trump administration to do something to address this decline. However, joining the World Tourism Organization will not reverse this trend nor is it likely to placate the industry.

Moreover, if there is a tangible benefit to the U.S. tourism industry from the UNWTO, it can be realized without joining the organization. U.S. based businesses and organizations can join the UNWTO as affiliate members if they desire, regardless of U.S. membership. Currently, the UNWTO lists 30 such U.S. affiliate members. If UNWTO membership were indeed a vital asset, presumably more tourism related businesses would avail themselves of this option.

Although the public reason for considering joining the UNWTO is to boost the U.S. tourism industry, there may be a political motivation at play here. The State Department is sensitive to criticism from other countries following the administration’s decisions to withdraw from the UN Human Rights Council, the Paris Agreement on climate change, and the Iran Nuclear Deal. The desire to show that the U.S. is willing to increase its multilateral engagement is palpable.

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The cost of engaging via the UNWTO probably seems small in the eyes of the State Department. Annual fees would run less than $1 million. But throwing U.S. tax dollars away is objectionable, be it $1, $1 million, or $1 billion. And this would, indeed, be throwing money away. Rejoining the UNWTO will not dampen criticism of the administration’s decisions. We know because the U.S. has tried that tack before. In 2002, in an attempt to allay criticism over the Iraq war and U.S. decisions not to ratify the Kyoto Protocol and the Rome Statute, the Bush administration announced the U.S. would rejoin UNESCO. The tactic failed utterly.

If President TrumpDonald John TrumpConway defends herself against Hatch Act allegations amid threat of subpoena How to defuse Gulf tensions and avoid war with Iran Trump says ‘stubborn child’ Fed ‘blew it’ by not cutting rates MORE is under the illusion that rejoining the UNWTO might win some diplomatic brownie points, he should first read the organization’s “strong condemnation” of his visa policy. Or its condemnation of his decision to restore restrictions on travel to Cuba. This is not a receptive audience. In short, rejoining the UNWTO would neither benefit the U.S. tourism industry nor reap a diplomatic windfall. American taxpayers deserve better than to see their money squandered again on this unnecessary organization.

Brett Schaefer is the Heritage Foundation’s Jay Kingham Fellow in International Regulatory Affairs. James Jay Carafano directs the think tank’s research on matters of national security and foreign relations.

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