In the past, he has been Georgia's ambassador to Spain and three other countries, but since January this year Zurab Pololikashvili has been the head of the World Tourism Organisation (UNWTO). Now aged 41, his CV is impressive and he speaks seven languages, as we found out when we spoke to him during a private visit he made to the Villa Padierna hotel.
In recent years tourism has been under threat from terrorism and many destinations have been hit by attacks. The threat appears to have reduced now. The last attack was in Barcelona, a year ago.
In some countries the number of visitors dropped by about 40 or 50 per cent after the terrorist attacks, and they were countries for whom tourism is the most important part of their economy. It is a good thing for the whole world that there have been none since Barcelona; there were some terrible attacks over several years. Our strategy is to take advantage of tourism to promote peace and improve the relationships between countries. Last year the number of tourists all over the world went up by more than one billion. There was growth of at least three per cent in every region. The world economy is growing, and that gives us hope that tourism is going to grow as well. When there is growth in the economy, it directly affects our sector.
During those years some southern Mediterranean countries were affected by terrorism and that had a positive repercussion for Spanish destinations. Now it looks as if that tourism was only 'loaned' to us and it is leaving.
I didn't want to mention any specific country, but now you have said that I will give you an example. Last year tourism in Turkey, Egypt and Tunisia grew and returned to the 2010 figures, but Spain also received a record 32 million tourists. There was a period during which countries like Egypt and Turkey, which had developed their beach tourism, suffered problems and their tourists came to Spain instead, but the return of tourists to those countries hasn't affected Spain. This year the figures are very positive in those countries and we are very pleased, because it is good for their economies and also for peace.
Low-cost airlines have been a significant factor in the rise in tourism because they have enabled more people to travel. Now we see that these companies are having difficulties. Are we looking at a giant with feet of clay?
I believe the low-cost situation is a question of management. In the past there have been strikes in companies which aren't low-cost, as well. There can be strikes anywhere, not just airlines. What is good is that connectivity has increased a great deal, in fact it has nearly doubled within the continents. There is still plenty of space for development, for the number of flights and tourists to increase. There are three factors to tourism: connectivity, infrastructures and service. Education and professionalism among staff is very important. That's where we want to grow and are investing. We are creating academic centres in every region because we want this to be a competitive sector. In one or two years we will have centres which will help other regions to develop.
Does the UNWTO use its own funds for these centres?
Yes. In some cases we have partners, such as business schools, who want to do it with us, or universities.
Does that only apply to emerging destinations?
No, we have done it in Portugal, for example. There is also demand in Switzerland, and other regions like Africa, Latin America and China. We want to set up a model, develop it and then copy it with a programme and platforms. Some regions live from tourism and need qualification.
As well as the low-cost airlines, there is another factor which has appeared recently: holiday rental properties. They are creating coexistence problems and are also competition for hotels.
Yes, there have been some quite strong protests in many places, because of the effect on the domestic population, the culture, the buildings. It needs to be well-managed. I believe Airbnb is holding talks with the authorities in different countries and cities to try to reach agreements and draw up rules of business. Holiday rentals have grown a great deal. This is a product and a business model which cannot be stopped. Our aim is to regulate, to achieve coexistence. Many countries have managed to do this and I hope that very soon Airbnb will have its own place in the sector.
In Spain this hasn't happened yet and one of the controversies here is who should do it, the government, the regional authorities or local councils.
I believe the state and town halls can come to an agreement over numbers, taxes and regulations.
Has any country found a formula yet?
We are working with them, to assist and see how the holiday rental sector can be managed. There is a high demand.
But has any country achieved it?
Yes, yes. It has been regulated in some countries.
Can you give me an example?
I don't want to single out any particular country, but in Portugal, for example, it has been regulated very clearly.
In some Spanish destinations, this type of invasive tourism has created a type of phobia about tourism. Does that worry the UNWTO?
Yes, it worries us when a region doesn't want to receive any more tourists. You always have to find a point of balance and agreement. We have several of those cases, especially in cruise destinations, or places like Venice, but with good management there is a way out of that situation. Some cities have always wanted tourists, invested in promotion and infrastructure and now need to find a balance. There are ways of doing it. Smart cities and destinations, with the new technology we offer, can manage tourist traffic in towns and cities. We always recommend that new destinations invest in promotion, in the image of their brand. The idea is that tourism should grow in every season of the year. Our role is to note the good examples and make recommendations to the other destinations.