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 groundhog."

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 competitor.

The election-year 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 America.

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.

"Regarding the 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?

From Jenkins' 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 consider.

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 Americans.

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 bargain.

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 way.

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.


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