The topic for the panel was Travel & Tourism: A $1.6 trillion industry in search of an identity, and we were about 90 minutes into allotted time of an hour and 45 minutes. Tim Zagat, CEO of the Zagat Survey, was seated next to me on the dais, and as another panelist was answering a question, he leaned over to whisper in my ear. Theres an elephant in the room, he said. No ones talking about how our foreign policy impacts travel and tourism.

Later that afternoon -- and three panels deeper into the World Travel & Tourism Councils Global Summit -- we passed each other in the corridor. A herd of elephants! Zagat called over.

As that evenings dinner event emptied out into the night, I saw him again. A herd? I asked.

We stepped out of the way as other delegates headed to the hotel buses. Look, he said, a lot of people here are being incredibly polite. A lot of people here, really senior people, are ticked off about not being able to get visas in a reasonable amount of time, or are tired of being looked at as if theyre a terrorist every time they visit the U.S.

Thats one elephant. Another is that a lot of people dont want to do business here because of Sarbanes-Oxley. Theyd prefer to go up on the London Stock Exchange. 

The third is that our government listens in on phone calls. There are a lot of people who think, Im a foreigner, and they might listen in on my business calls. Im not saying that they do, but visitors may not have the same confidence in our government that we do.

Fourth is our attitude toward treaties. If we disagree with other countries, we simply say theyre irrelevant. We think were protecting the world with our innate goodness, but thats not how everyone else sees us.

Not wanting to appear politically partisan in his remarks, Zagat amended his original metaphor. Not just a herd of elephants. A few jackasses, too.

The next morning, in her address to delegates, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice nodded her head toward one of Tims elephants, though she didnt quite look it in the eye.

Regarding visa wait times, she claimed that the U.S. had dramatically decreased the wait time for visas but also acknowledged that it was only the beginning, and I understand that.

To give a sense of how large that elephant still is, a Department of Homeland Security official told me during the Summit that theres a three-month waiting period for a citizen of India to get an appointment for an interview to apply for a U.S. visa, the appointment being just the very first step in the process.

I spied a few other elephants in the room, the largest being the lack of government interest to fund a meaningful U.S. marketing campaign.

On the second day of the Summit, Commerce Secretary Carlos Gutierrez nodded to my elephant, saying, We can do so much more to promote the U.S. as a tourist destination.

To give a sense of how large my elephant is, it was also pointed out during the Summit that the city of Las Vegas spends well over $200 million to promote just that one city.

In contrast, the U.S. spends $6 million to promote the entire nation.

In opening the summit, WTTC Chairman Vince Wolfington said that having four cabinet secretaries appear before industry leaders was a gesture of participation but warned that it must be followed by means, money, action and emphasis to demonstrate that our government understands the value of travel and tourism -- and that, if it has the will, it can clear a herd of elephants out of a room.


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