We have several things to say about the passage of the Travel Promotion Act, and the first one is this: We're still somewhat amazed that this happened.
According to our institutional memory, which goes back further than some of us like to admit, the idea of getting the federal government involved in promoting travel to the U.S. has never gotten much traction. For 40 years, during peace and war, during Republican and Democratic administrations, during boom times and during recessions, the U.S. government could never be persuaded to invest in big-time tourism promotion.
There were token programs in the 1970s and '80s, but industry people were always pointing out that small countries spent more on travel promotion than the U.S.
The low point came in the mid-1990s, after President Clinton convened the first White House Conference on Travel and Tourism in October 1995 to help map out what the event's planners hoped would be a "comprehensive national tourism strategy."
Then fiscal reality set in, and the U.S. Travel and Tourism Administration was shut down in a frenzy of budget-balancing the following year.
So that's No. 1. This is amazing.
No. 2 is that the Travel Promotion Act miraculously landed on President Obama's desk last week due to a very lucky convergence of events, not the least of which was the formation of the Discover America Partnership, which laid out a strategic "Blueprint to Discover America" in 2007 and stuck with it.
The partnership, which has since merged into the U.S. Travel Association, set three goals for itself: improve the visa system, improve the entry process for foreign visitors and create a public-private partnership to promote travel to the U.S., with a dedicated funding source.
We were among the skeptical at first, particularly after the airlines blasted the plan on Capitol Hill for including a fee on airline tickets as a possible funding source. But the partnership recovered, regrouped and pushed on.
By any measure, and to borrow a baseball analogy, the blueprint produced base hits the first two pitches and a homer on the third. Visa wait times are down, participation in the Visa Waiver program is up, and the entry process, while still no walk in the park for many visitors, is getting better.
The homer is that the federal government has finally made a big commitment to tourism promotion.
Our third point is about what has to happen now: The industry needs to be just as focused and just as lucky in creating the Corporation for Travel Promotion and making it work right.
At the same time, this great achievement -- and it is a great achievement -- should not overinflate the travel industry's sense of its own lobbying prowess.
Travel hit a home run here, but it wasn't Washington's toughest pitch. The federal money comes from a new fee on foreign visitors, not from taxpayers. There's no political downside. Supporters of the bill said many times, "It's not going to cost us," and indeed, it seems that some legislators voted for the bill not because they were convinced of its merits but because "it wouldn't hurt."
The tougher test will come when the federal government has to do something for travel that hurts, that has a price. What then?
The travel industry will need all the clout it can muster, and one way of doing that is creating an effective Corporation for Travel Promotion that hits a few home runs of its own to shut up the naysayers.