Florida man with no Austrian ties becomes country's honorary consul, largely by asking nicely
ORLANDO, Fla. -- Toby Unwin was an unlikely choice as Austria's newest honorary consul.
He has never been to Austria, has no Austrian heritage, and doesn't speak German, the country's official language. But he is a successful businessman with a clean background, and he did ask nicely.
The 33-year-old, originally from England, once read that people could become amateur diplomats by writing foreign officials and inquiring. After he made several attempts, Austria took him up on his offer.
The job doesn't pay, but Unwin does get the authority to issue emergency visas, the title of honorary consul, Republic of Austria, and a license plate that can get him out of tickets.
Unwin's role hasn't hurt his career, either: He's rubbed elbows with city and county mayors, and met others interested in doing business with him.
"I've gotten to meet all kinds of people, and doors have opened for me that otherwise were shut or I didn't know were there," Unwin said. "A lot of times you don't get to meet people with access to government. That's something I've really never had before."
An Austrian flag and a plaque on the door of Unwin's home, which includes an infinity pool and full bar, mark it as the official honorary consulate. Visiting Austrians with legal problems or entrepreneurs interested in doing business in Austria may meet Unwin's wife, child, or yellow Labrador.
Countries keep paid consulates and staff in Washington and other big cities, but use people like Unwin to inexpensively expand their reach. Like other consuls, Unwin is to be an ambassador to Americans and an ally for Austrians traveling or living here.
The U.S. Department of State says foreign governments have 1,038 honorary consuls in America, and Austria has just over two dozen of them.
To start the office in late October, Unwin received a map of Austria, stamps for official documents, a CD and sheet music of the national and European anthems, and three flags. He has been studying German and plans to visit Austria this summer.
"I actually find (German) quite difficult to learn, because I don't speak it every day," Unwin said. "I've never met an Austrian that doesn't speak flawless English, so they're all talking English to you anyway."
An interpreter is available for him to call if necessary.
Wolfgang Renezeder, spokesman for the Austrian Embassy in Washington, said the country wanted an Orlando consul because the area draws so many tourists and retirees.
Renezeder said about half of Austria's honorary consuls in the United States were from Austria, while the others typically have some other connection. The fact that Unwin does not wasn't as important as his meeting other requirements, such as passing a background check.
Honorary and regular consuls perform many of the same functions, but general consuls are paid and are much more likely to be citizens of the country they represent.
Most honorary consuls have another career. Unwin is in real estate and finance, and has written three books about asset protection and time management. Many, like Unwin, are wealthy.
Edward Lee Paul, Jr., honorary consul of Belize in North Carolina, spends between $25,000 and $30,000 of his own money a year on a small staff and consulate office in Wilmington. The 45-year-old optometrist isn't from Belize, but taught at a medical school there and has been involved in mission work for the country.
He was appointed in 2005, and had to cut back clinical hours because he spends so much time as consul.
"To be candid, it has been much more involved than I anticipated, but I've enjoyed it tremendously," Paul said. "I'm passionate about the country of Belize."
Unwin has already helped one Austrian arrested for allegedly keeping a rental car too long. The man thought he rented it for 12 weeks, but the car company thought it was one.
Unwin arranged for someone to bail the man out and helped negotiate an agreement with the car company so the charges would be dropped.
"I want to be seen by the guys in Washington to be a good representative of them," Unwin said.
(Copyright 2007 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)