The apparent success of the partnership between the federal government and the travel industry to boost inbound travel numbers (see related article, "Success breeds challenges in government-industry partnership") raises an interesting question: Is a Department of Tourism and/or a national tourist board the next logical "ask"?
The majority of countries in the world have a tourism minister or secretary, and we are almost unique among industrialized nations in not having a national tourist board. Brand USA, the public/private initiative that promotes America with an integrated marketing campaign, comes close, but its budget, relative to the economic contributions of travel and tourism, is modest compared with our competitors.
At the State Department-sponsored Strategic Dialogue on International Travel last week, side conversations arose on the topic of whether the travel industry would benefit from a ministry or federal department of sorts.
A low-profile travel office within Commerce aside, a strong argument could be made that the industry is best served as an orphan whom everyone wants to adopt. There were four Cabinet-level departments represented in the "dialogue" on travel -- State, Homeland Security (DHS), Commerce and Interior -- and they were falling over one another to talk about what they were doing to facilitate and promote inbound travel and create jobs and boost the economy.
While two Cabinet-level secretaries -- Hillary Clinton of State and Janet Napolitano of DHS -- also showed up, it's more significant that their deputy secretaries, undersecretaries and assistant secretaries were there in large numbers and spoke knowledgeably about the industry and what they were doing to support it.
It's instructive to note that the U.S. delegation at the T-20 Summit for tourism ministers of the G-20 countries, held in Mexico last spring, was led by Deputy Secretary of State Thomas Nides rather than by a minister. Ultimately, the U.S. team, which included members of other Cabinet-level departments, was both very influential in discussions and ultimately crucial in shaping a declaration that connected economic development with travel facilitation.
Having Commerce, State and DHS carry the ball for travel is an incredibly efficient and effective path to progress because they are precisely the departments that a tourism minister would have to persuade to support tourism-related proposals involving visa reform. Most tourism ministers at the T-20 could only hope that, ultimately, their security and diplomatic counterparts would approve any declaration, But for America, the statements were delivered preapproved.
Nonetheless, it should be kept in mind that the U.S. travel industry is the beneficiary of current negative economic circumstances. For the moment, the industry provides the perfect antidote for what ails the country. Investments in visa facilitation and travel promotion can demonstrably be tied to creating jobs. Not just jobs, but jobs that can't be moved offshore.
It's a unique opportunity for State and DHS in particular to be closely associated with initiatives that have direct impact on jobs and the economy. Likewise, the president, who issued the executive order that made travel a priority for his administration, also benefits.
If the economic picture were rosier, would we see so much federal focus on travel? Likely not. While a case can always be made that tourism promotion provides a good return on investment, it resonates particularly strongly now. Travel's advocates and lobbyists certainly helped the president's people connect the dots, but there won't always be such a compelling argument to make.
Likewise, travel interests are currently served by an unusually cooperative spirit among State and DHS, a spirit rooted in close personal relationships among individuals there. While credit is due to U.S. Travel and other advocates, it needs to be recognized that the industry also benefits from an unusual alignment of stars.
The best outcome would be to take advantage of the current recognition of travel's importance and turn it into a root concern at State, DHS, Commerce and Interior. Secretaries and presidents come and go, but if a cultural shift can be established among careerists -- consular officers, immigration agents and those we often dismiss as bureaucrats -- we will see long-term benefits. It's better if everyone in government believes travel is their issue than to have them thinking it's primarily someone else's concern.
In any case, the current economic challenges from which tourism benefits would make it extraordinarily challenging to propose the establishment of even a tourism board. (A Department of Tourism is completely off the table.) The energy of our advocates within and outside government, however, could profitably be spent supporting enlightened attitudes within existing departments.
Email Arnie Weissmann at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter.