Politics makes one cynical. Early in the congressional election year of 2006, then-Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Secretary Michael Chertoff and then-Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice announced the Rice-Chertoff Joint Vision for Secure Borders and Open Doors, an initiative that was supposed to address mounting concerns about the greetings that visitors were getting from U.S. immigration and customs officers.
Despite the fact that a U.S. Travel Association survey had found that potential visitors feared U.S. customs and immigrations agents more than they feared terrorists, Secure Borders and Open Doors turned out to be little more than window dressing. The Fortress America mentality persevered, the hassles surrounding airport security only increased, and wait times for those desiring to come to the U.S. got longer.
So when President Obama stood in Disney World early this election year and revealed his executive order in support of travel and tourism to create jobs and help the economy, my expectations were low.
Comments he had made early in his administration about companies spending stimulus money on meetings (especially meetings in Las Vegas) were widely seen as having a suppressive effect on travel. Prior to the executive order, the president just didn't seem tuned in to either industry concerns or the economic benefits of travel.
But since Obama announced the strategic travel and tourism initiative, I've been impressed with the speed at which change is occurring. While efforts to facilitate visa applicants from China and Brazil were already under way at the time of the announcement, these have been greatly accelerated, and wait times have moved steadily shorter all year.
Earlier this year, I spoke with Deputy Secretary of State Thomas Nides about how visa facilitation efforts played out, and he spoke at the time of cooperation among the State Department, the DHS and the industry.
Shortly afterward, I received a note from DHS Assistant Secretary Douglas Smith saying he would be happy to meet with me and take a deeper dive into the relationship between DHS and the travel industry next time I was in Washington.
I took him up on the offer last week, and while we spoke at length about specific programs (see In the Hot Seat), we also talked about the overarching travel initiative and how it was playing out behind the scenes among various governmental departments.
Like Nides, Smith has shuffled back and forth between government and private enterprise, and he is sympathetic to the challenges of both. The "Office of the Private Sector" within DHS, to which he is assigned, is a clearinghouse of sorts for DHS-related questions and complaints from businesses.
"If you're a hotel company or a trucking company, you can come to one spot with your challenges," he said. "We won't necessarily be your proponents, but we'll pay attention to what you have to say and fix it if we can."
He and Nides knew each other before assuming their current positions.
"We already had a deep relationship and mutual trust and were able to bring the right people to the table quickly," Smith said. "But don't get me wrong, this is a whole-government approach. We brief the president on this, and he gets it. He's engaged on this, and he's driving us hard. It's a big deal for him. He's got a lot of senior people working on this."
He continued: "There are many people involved in the effort, people you would not normally think of. DHS wants to get people here safely, and [Secretary of Interior] Ken Salazar wants them to stay in the national parks, so he's involved. Secretary [of Transportation] Ray LaHood wants to make sure it's easy for them to get around. I was just in Beijing with [former Secretary of Commerce] Gary Locke, promoting inbound travel from China. It's a tough economic climate, and everyone understands the potential for what travel and tourism can do to help."
I was impressed that the names of travel industry leaders rolled from Smith's tongue as easily as those of government officials. In the course of our conversation, he mentioned Hubert Joly (until recently CEO of Carlson); Sabre CEO Sam Gilliland; Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Bureau CEO Rossi Ralenkotter; John Sprouls, CEO of Universal Orlando Resorts; MGM Resorts Chairman/CEO Jim Murren; and, from Marriott International, Chairman Bill Marriott, CEO Arne Sorenson and Chief Communications and Public Affairs Officer Kathleen Matthews.
Smith also said he speaks with U.S. Travel CEO Roger Dow "about once a week."
The travel initiative, Smith noted, rises above politics. Willard Mitt Romney is named after Bill Marriott's father, and Murren is a prominent Republican, but everyone is coming together both for the industry and what it means for American jobs.
In a year when partisan political campaigns have soared to new heights of ugliness, the story of the travel initiative gives one hope. Despite rhetoric to the contrary, government and private industry can work together constructively, common ground can be found among people of good will even if they have areas of disagreement, and not everything political is cynical and sour.
Email Arnie Weissmann at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter.