Tradition holds that U.S. election
years are bad for European tourism. Tom Jenkins, executive director
of the European Tour Operators Association, took note of this in a
recent conversation we had, but he quickly added that as a
prognosticator, "It's about as accurate as the forecasts of a
Jenkins' job is to
assist tour operators in selling travel to Europe, and his group
includes U.S.-based outbound operators such as Collette, Tauck and
American Express, as well as firms such as Kuoni and eBookers that
sell to Europeans. Since he's in the business of helping his
members sell Europe, he views the U.S. as his chief
curse notwithstanding, I told him that in 2006 he had some
competitive advantages over the U.S. First, it's still a hassle for
citizens of some countries to obtain a U.S. visa, and no visitor
seems keen on facing the immigration officers guarding Fortress
Second, I said I
thought he could take advantage of the fact that the U.S.
government barely promotes tourism. European tourist boards spend
hundreds of millions of euros, while the U.S. currently spends less
than $10 million worldwide.
first point, I think we have short memories," Jenkins said. "I remember the second time I visited the
U.S. It was in 1982, and I had obtained a business visa and was
very proud of that. I had even put on a suit and tie for the
flight. I walked up to the immigration officer, who looked at the
visa, then looked me over. 'Who the f*** are you trying to kid,
son?' he asked. It wasn't Ellis Island, but they put you through a
bit even then."
It's cold comfort
to be reminded that the U.S. has a history of hostility to guests,
but what of the lack of government support for attracting tourism?
What of the absence of a U.S. tourist board?
perspective, we've got it easy and he's got it hard. "The U.S.
government is responsive to the needs of its tourism industry,
especially if you look at how European politicians react to us," he
said. Jenkins then detailed European Union-imposed restrictions and
taxes that "no normal business-focused" leadership would
By laying this out
for me to forward to an American audience, was Jenkins, I wondered,
trying to lull his competition into contentment with its
shortcomings? In the end, I concluded that his point of view must
be colored by a frustrating competitive disadvantage that he said
he can do nothing about: A weak dollar makes America look cheap to
Europeans and Asians and makes Europe look expensive to
The weak dollar
makes it worth running the gauntlet of U.S. immigration officials
when, just beyond customs, a shopping spree awaits. From his
perspective, perhaps a U.S. tourism promotion campaign is
unnecessary when the world already knows that America is a
Jenkins might be
right that a weak dollar is our strong suit, but I don't think we
should necessarily feel content to sit back and count our
milquetoast greenbacks and blessings.
It's only natural
to worry about one's own problems and to focus on what competitors
are doing right, and that's healthy. But in the end, any evaluation
of success must factor in not only how well an entity does, but how
well it could have done if only it had gotten out of its own
Awareness of the
European Union's enthusiasm for regulation or the U.S.'s lackluster
self-promotion is indeed part of the formula for evaluating
either's success: It's important not to forget to count the money
that's left on the table.