Some people look hopefully to the United Nations as the venue most likely to promote peace, further international cooperation and forge a future where people on Earth can truly gain a deeper understanding of one another.
Me, I look to International Pow Wow.
On the surface, Pow Wow looks like many other industries' trade shows. It's about bringing buyers and sellers together to make deals. In this case, tour operators, packagers and other industry professionals come from around the world to sign the contracts that power U.S. inbound travel. Hotel blocks are arranged, and theme park tickets are brokered. Destination marketers make pitches, and roadside attractions work to bring more motorcoaches to their doors.
But it is the unique dynamics of travel that separates this conference, organized by the U.S. Travel Association and held in San Francisco this week, from gatherings in other industries.
Everyone who attends Pow Wow is here to facilitate the movement of people from one country to another, and when that happens in times of peace, the world changes for the better.
It's hard to improve on Mark Twain's observation, recorded in 1857: "Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one's lifetime."
These days, I doubt there's even "one little corner of the earth" where a person could sit and not formulate a view about America. As a brand, this nation is supported by its ubiquitous exports of music, movies, TV shows and, for better or worse, foreign policy.
Its global reach is a double-edged sword. Everyone thinks they know America, long before they contemplate visiting it. First-time visitors who have followed American pop culture might expect to land in an environment reflective of a materialistic people who, for all their worldly success, seem oddly unsophisticated, and who have created a political landscape defined by polarized viewpoints.
I can't promise they won't see this to some extent, but the fact is that people who actually come to the U.S. walk away with a very different, deeper understanding. People might arrive with preconceptions and stereotypes, but according to an RT Strategies study commissioned by U.S. Travel, 74% of those who actually visit America leave here with "an extremely favorable opinion of the country vs. those who have not visited recently."
But there is an aspect of American policy that must be overcome, by Americans, in order for the U.S. to attract more visitors and shape "an extremely favorable opinion of the country." We must simply be better at inviting people to visit and improve how we welcome them at our borders.
The Travel Promotion Act, signed into law by President Obama about 14 months ago, is a great first step in broadly promoting the country. An international tourism campaign by the U.S. is long overdue, and I'm looking forward to seeing the first TPA-funded ad campaign launch next year.
The second piece -- the visa acquisition process and how we welcome visitors --still has a long way to go. We've underfunded visa application procedures at embassies and consulates, so that potential visitors often face long waits for interview slots and must travel long distances simply to apply. In addition, there needs to be a systematic approach that keeps the nation safe without causing visitors to worry about whether they'll be treated like a criminal when all they want to do is visit our country.
Industry friends who lobby in Washington tell me that progress is slowly being made to change the government mindset. Randy Garfield, executive vice president of worldwide sales and travel operations for Walt Disney World Resorts, recently recalled a conversation with an influential senator. As Garfield went into his pitch for why change still needs to occur, the senator interrupted him to declare: "You're not just preaching to the choir, you're preaching to the preacher!"
And with this column, I know I'm preaching to the preachers. But occasionally I like to remind myself that regardless of our imperfect mechanisms to promote and facilitate travel into the U.S., we have partners around the world who, consciously or not, work to compensate.
Pow Wow attendees do more than conduct business; they construct bridges of cultural understanding between America and the rest of the world.
Email Arnie Weissmann at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter.