Two weeks ago, the secretary-general of the World Tourism Organization, a U.N. agency known as the UNWTO, traveled to Victoria Falls, on the border between Zambia and Zimbabwe, to sign an agreement with those two countries, which are co-hosting the organization's 2013 General Assembly at the falls.

According to the UNWTO, the tripartite agreement is a routine part of the planning process for the event. A ceremony was held with the two heads of state: Zambian President Michael Sata and Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe.

According to Google, today's ultimate arbiter of what is and what was, the event went virtually unnoticed in the American news media, but it was big news elsewhere.

According to the government-run Zimbabwe Broadcasting Corp., the two countries are "bracing for next year's world tourism conference, which will help market the whole of Africa as the hub of world tourism."

The Zimbabwe news report also stated that the secretary-general, Taleb Rifai, "showered the country with praise, saying the whole world has a reason to tour Zimbabwe, as it is endowed with world-class hospitality."

In conjunction with the event, Sata and Mugabe were given an Open Letter on Travel and Tourism. According to some news accounts, this had the effect of honoring the two presidents as "international tourism ambassadors."

Only then were the news accounts picked up by U.S. media -- specifically, Comedy Central's mock news commentary "The Colbert Report."

In Zimbabwe, however, it's not a laughing matter.

According to a commentary in the Zimbabwe Mail, "The notion that the UNWTO would honor a murderous despot like Mugabe rightly stirred outrage and inspired a number of blogs and news stories."

Although the UNWTO later denied that its Open Letter conferred any title or honor upon its recipients, critics and bloggers continued to claim that it's unseemly for a tourism body to dignify a political strongman, even a head of state, who is under a U.S. and E.U. travel ban for human rights abuses.

In Europe, meanwhile, a Scottish National Party representative to the European Parliament called for the E.U. to protest the designation of Mugabe as a tourism leader. On his website, SNP Euro member Alyn Smith wrote: "As one of the world's most barbarous dictators, Mr. Mugabe has wrecked his own tourist industry and brought Zimbabwe to the edge of economic ruin. He consistently betrays human rights, has defied democracy and uses violence to hang on to power. ... Mr. Mugabe is not a global tourist leader. Indeed, as an international pariah, he is exactly the opposite."

Canada, which was already in the process of resigning its membership in the UNWTO, made its exit official last week, citing the Mugabe flap as "the last straw."

If the U.S. were a member of the UNWTO, we're sure that somebody would demand that we follow Canada out the door, but the U.S. is not a member.

Most of our important economic and political allies remain members, including France, Germany, Brazil, Jamaica, Mexico and Japan.

On our good days, tourism leaders around the world all recognize that what's good about travel and tourism can and does transcend politics.

On our bad days, however, we don't pass the laugh test.
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