In 1852, the story goes, Sir George Everest, mapping and surveying the Himalayas, measured the highest peak at exactly 29,000 feet. But, fearing that everyone would take his measurement to be an estimate, Everest added 24 inches and announced that the peak -- soon to be named for him -- was 29,002 feet.

That number stood for more than 100 years (its now thought to be 29,035 feet).

I thought about this (possibly apocryphal) trivia when I saw that the Travel Industry Association (TIA) pegs the direct annual impact of travel and tourism on the U.S. at $599 billion. Whether or not thats accurate, it has the virtue of avoiding the appearance of being an estimate rounded up to the nearest hundred billion.

Whether its exact doesnt really matter, but, to update Sen. Everett Dirksens most famous quote, a billion here and a billion there, and pretty soon youre talking real money. Not much difference between $599 billion and $600 billion, but theres a huge leap between either of those numbers and $1.3 trillion.

Thats the figure that TIA estimates to be the indirect impact of travel and tourism spending in the U.S., and thats a very big number -- equivalent, TIA says, to one-third of the entire federal budget.

Its a number I thought about recently while in Mexico City. I had been invited to speak at a conference organized by CNET, a group of Mexican entrepreneurs in travel. The conference was well attended, thanks to speakers with a lot more drawing power than me: Mexico President Vicente Fox, the secretaries of housing and banking and tourism, and the director general of the Mexican tourism board.

It was two days of charts, graphs, statistics and comparative data, but of all the information presented, nothing made as deep an impression as a conversation I had at lunch on the second day. I was seated next to Oralia Rice, the undersecretary for tourism planning, and on her right sat Rafael Higuera, director of public relations for Jose Cuervo, the tequila company.

I dont think the private sector is aware of how tied in they are to tourism, Rice said. She looked over at Higuera. Cuervo doesnt know, she said. She turned to Higuera and asked him a question. He shook his head.

I asked if Cuervo knows how much of their tequila is sold in resorts and hotel bars and on airplanes in Mexico, she said. He doesnt know. In other words, he doesnt know how beneficial tourism is to his company.

Its not his fault. Direct tourism revenue represents 8% of gross domestic product in Mexico. Tourism could get a lot more support if we could figure out how to demonstrate to private companies how important, in dollars, tourism is to their businesses.

Rice said shes working on a methodology to be able to show this to corporations. But its not easy, she said, and times running out -- hers is a political appointment, and Fox will leave office next September.

Upon returning to the U.S., I spoke with TIA director of communications Allen Kay and asked if the TIA has made attempts to quantify indirect travel expenditures in a way that could help nontravel companies realize how important, in dollars, travel is to them.

Not at present, he said. We would love to do that. It would show how great our reach is. Tourism is everywhere. And thats the problem. The difficulty is that diversity is our great strength and also our challenge.

To get liquor companies behind us, youd first have to get a sense of what percent of a hotels bar business is local and how much is from visitors. Itd take time -- youd have to develop a methodology, but its doable.

Im sure that the TIAs $599 billion and $1.3 trillion estimates are, as Everests tallying was, at least close to accurate, but it stuns me that an industry with $1.9 trillion in direct and indirect benefits to the economy can loosen only $10 million dollars in promotional funding from Congress.

I like the approach suggested in Mexico. There are thousands of companies that benefit from travel and tourism. And if we prove it to them, they may well want to assist us in our ascent.

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