A Change in Attitude in D.C.?

I know I've written this before, but I've got the feeling again that the tourism industry is at last getting its twin messages across to the politicians in Washington. The messages, of course, are that travel and national security are not mutually exclusive concepts and more importantly for the travel business in the long run, that hospitality is one of the country's most vital and economically important industries.

In the 30-plus years I've been writing about the hotel industry, I've seen scant evidence that many people in Washington — and that includes presidents, members of Congress and legions of bureaucrats — realize the economic power of tourism, particularly its ability to create jobs, generate tax revenues and promote peace and understanding. I realize some people both in and out of tourism may see the last benefit I mentioned as a bit pretentious, but I'll address it later.

Over the years, the travel industry has tried various approaches to raise its profile among policymakers, and none have worked. The latest salvo, launched with a flourish in late January by the Travel Industry Association, wisely focused on the link between travel and national security. Since official Washington seems to dismiss the notion that tourism is a vital economic engine (if it did, we would have had a cabinet-level secretary of tourism years ago.), it was smart of TIA to press the hot-button issue of security and its relation to travel.

The TIA proposal, which it calls A Blueprint to Discover America, offers three key recommendations:

  • An overhaul of the U.S. visa system that would both speed up the process and institute further security safeguards;

  • Expansion and modernization of ports of entry, again to both enhance the process and deploy additional security measures;

  • Creation of a public-private partnership to improve the perceptions of America in target countries.

It appears that, at least initially, Congress and the executive branch are paying attention to the TIA efforts. The Department of Commerce pledged $3.9 million to an industry program to build multi-language websites that promote the U.S. as a destination. Since the TIA announcement, a Senate subcommittee has held hearings on the proposals and Sen. George Voinovich (R-OH) sponsored an amendment to a Senate bill to strengthen and expand the visa waiver program, which would make it easier for travelers from additional countries to enter the U.S. as tourists.

These are two positive signs, although my enthusiasm is tempered. I've been encouraged before (e.g., the much-ballyhooed White House Conference on Tourism during the Clinton administration), only to see no concrete results.

While it emphasizes national security concerns, the TIA's primary motivation is to turn the tide in overseas travel to the U.S., which has been in a long slide since 2001 (although a recent government report shows that dollars spent in the U.S. last year by international tourists finally topped the previous record set in 2000).

Another benefit of increased tourism is the opportunity for international fence mending. People are less likely to hate your country if they've had a chance to visit and spend time with the people. And often commerce is the lubricant that greases the peace-through-tourism scenario.

For example, In 2004, an Israeli investment company bought The Plaza Hotel from Saudi Prince Alwaleed and then a year later selected Fairmont Hotels (of which the prince is part owner) to manage the property. Sometimes the green of money is thicker than the red of hatred — all because of the hospitality industry.

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