The latest potential victim of the Washington budget squeeze is a seemingly small line item that has an outsize impact on hundreds of billions of dollars in travel exports: the Survey of International Air Travelers (SIAT). If the Department of Commerce fails to preserve it, marketing programs that generate hundreds of millions of dollars in exports will be undermined.
Unlike other exports, travel exports are typically people and services, not goods. In 2012, these exports totaled $134 billion, making it the largest service export category and one of the fastest-growing export categories overall.
The SIAT is a crucial tool for growing these exports. At a relatively modest cost of $1.8 million, the survey data help to direct marketing programs that generate hundreds of millions of dollars.
Currently, the survey is our only official source of data on where international visitors travel in the U.S. and what they do and spend. And since each visitor to the U.S. spends on average more than $4,000 on attractions, retail, dining and other local goods and services, knowing where they visit, what they spend and how they spend it is of the utmost importance to the travel industry and the U.S. economy as a whole.
The essential data obtained by the SIAT guides state tourism offices and destination marketing organizations as they develop the travel promotion strategies that drive international visitation. In turn, these efforts bring more international visitors, and more tourism dollars, to local economies throughout the country.
Without the SIAT, destination marketing organizations will be flying blind, lacking the data they need to grow and refine their efforts to bring international visitors to stay, play and spend in the U.S.
The SIAT is not a special tax break, nor a giveaway nor an earmark. Rather, it is a sound example of a government program that costs little to implement and accomplishes what the private sector cannot do on its own. The survey provides data that state tourism offices and destination marketing organizations need to accomplish their work, and that can only result from collaboration between the private sector and programs funded by local, state and federal governments, like the SIAT.
As America's single greatest service export, international travel supports more than 931,000 jobs. The sector exhibits significant potential for job growth: According to the U.S. Travel Association, the travel industry created 54,300 jobs in 2012, and employment in travel and tourism is growing 17% faster than employment in the general economy. Remarkably, every 33 additional international visitors to the U.S. create one new American job, underscoring the importance of growing international travel, rather than suppressing it.
In many other ways, the federal government has taken major steps to prioritize and grow travel exports. In 2010, Congress enacted the Travel Promotion Act, which established Brand USA to promote the U.S. to potential visitors overseas. In 2012, the Obama administration announced its national tourism strategy, with the goal of bringing 100 million international travelers, along with the $250 billion they are expected to spend, to the U.S. by 2021.
It would be a sad irony if these huge returns were sacrificed in order to save a much smaller amount. But it is not too late. The Department of Commerce has the authority to preserve the SIAT for 2013 and beyond.
For the sake of the hundreds of communities and tens of thousands of people whose jobs depend on travel exports, we hope it does.
Rossi Ralenkotter is the chairman of the board of directors for the U.S. Travel Association and the president and CEO of the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority.