President Barack Obama last year signed an executive order creating a task force to design a National Travel & Tourism Strategy. It was a follow-up to his 2010 signing of the Travel Promotion Act of 2009.
Believe it or not, it’s the first time in our history that the US government has set promoting foreign travel to America as a national priority, something that most of the world’s nations, from the poorest to the richest, have been doing for decades.
To American ears, the title “tourism minister” has a quaint, even comic ring to it. To the rest of the world, however, it’s no joke, and here’s why:
Some time last month, a man or woman packed a bag and boarded a plane, train, bus or a ship to travel from one country to another, maybe for business but more likely for pleasure. That person was the one billionth traveler of 2012, the first time the world has ever seen that many people traveling in one year.
Tourism worldwide generates about $1 trillion and hundreds of millions of jobs annually. It’s growing almost in defiance of the recession. Just about every nation on Earth wants as big a piece of that action as it can get, and they’re all working very hard at getting it.
The world’s top ten tourism destinations, in order, are France, the United States, China, Spain, Italy, the United Kingdom, Turkey, Germany, Mexico and Malaysia. The US is the only one of the ten that doesn’t have a Cabinet-level official devoted to promoting tourism.
Some may argue that America has done well enough at attracting tourists without needing one. What’s the problem with that? Let me count the ways.
1. Our Economy.
American unemployment is unacceptably high. This country has been bleeding manufacturing and other blue-collar jobs for decades and those jobs are not coming back. At the same time, you will be hard-pressed to find another industry in the world generating more new business and new cash flow than tourism. Think this economy could use some new jobs?
2. Our Pride.
Since when were Americans content to be Number Two in anything?
And yet we sort of muddle our way through the business of attracting more visitors — and their money — to this country.
New York City is America’s top travel destination, and last year, the Big Apple drew a record 52 million visitors. The fact that the City of New York runs 18 tourism offices around the world probably had something to do with that.
It’s great that New York can afford to run its own overseas promotional campaign, but why should it have to? And what about all our other great cities that can’t afford to run their own foreign offices?
The Travel Promotion Act of 2009 created something called the Office of Travel Promotion within the US Commerce Department.
Show of digital hands: How many of you out there ever heard of the Office of Travel Promotion before this moment?
If I dig long and hard enough, I can probably find out who runs this office and what it’s doing on behalf of American tourism, but why should I — or anyone — have to?
I could easily tell you who’s in charge of tourism in Denmark, Brazil, Singapore, Botswana, or more than a hundred other countries. All the government’s efforts to bring in more visitors flow with a single, concentrated focus through that person’s office.
Who holds that responsibility in the United States? Who is the face of American tourism in Washington? Thirteen years into the 21st century, I have no idea — and I’m betting you don’t, either.
The federal government’s attempts to push American tourism abroad hasn’t even taxied to the head of the runway yet and already, it’s a hot, disjointed mess — a board here, an office there, a task force over in the corner.
Who’s running this?
Somebody needs to take charge here, a Cabinet-level official with the clout to pull all these scattered efforts together, and a profile that guarantees direct access to the President and Congress when necessary.
A tourism secretary. A tourism minister. A tourism czar. The title itself doesn’t matter, but the need for it does. Because the global competition for those $1 trillion is heating up, and the rest of the world is not waiting around for Washington to get its act together.
Our haphazard, unfocused, uncoordinated efforts to sell America to the world’s tourists won’t cut it in the 21st century. The competition is too great and the stakes are too high. We have to do better.
tourism graphic via shutterstock.com