Every year at about this time, the Travel Industry Association meets in Washington for a State of the Travel Industry luncheon.

What usually happens is this: The paid president and CEO introduces the industry executive who will serve as the chairman for the coming year, and the chairman gives a speech.

It happened again last week as Disneys Jay Rasulo came to the podium and reminded hundreds of important travel people that this is not as good at it gets. Relaying statistics from the World Tourism Organization, he noted that three-quarters of a billion people travel outside their own countries every year, or about 12% of the worlds population. In 15 years, that number could double to 1.5 billion, or nearly 25% of the worlds population.

But the U.S. market share of this international travel pie is shrinking. Its at an all-time low. The U.S. is losing billions of dollars every year in tourism revenue because people are going elsewhere.

And the more they go elsewhere, the less they come here.

Rasulo said the U.S. needs three things.

First is a well-funded, nationally coordinated destination-marketing campaign to promote the U.S. overseas.

Second are passport, visa and security procedures that strike a better balance between security and hospitality and give travelers a path of least resistance.

Third is a seat at the governments table, one from which we can actually be heard.

And he made it clear that theres something more than jobs and prosperity at stake here, although thats reason enough to raise the alarm. As Rasulo put it, When foreigners experience our culture and hospitality, they invariably come away with a much more positive image of our country.

In other words, Seeing America is believing America.

Hes right, you know.

The hit parade

If you were to fire up your favorite Internet search engine and enter the name George Allen Smith IV, you would get about 2.5 million hits, as of last week, somewhat more than you would get for William Howard Taft, the 27th president of the United States. Such is the power of the Internet and our mass media.

By this yardstick of our popular culture, poor, boring President Taft has been eclipsed by a young man who was unknown to history until he disappeared during his honeymoon six months ago.

Because the incident happened on a cruise, the ship, the cruise line and the cruise industry have come under the flails of the bloggers and the commentators and the all-night news shows that feed on facts and, when the facts are all gone, feed on scraps and fiction.

Royal Caribbean felt it necessary to break its stoic silence and began issuing statements to clarify the muddy record, which may have made matters worse.

We have seen this kind of cause celebre before. It often happens that it doesnt end until it makes everybody look bad. We may be reaching that point.

We revere freedom of expression. Its the business were in. But the line between the practitioners of responsible journalism and the seekers of hits and wows is drawn by the value we place on restraint.

Reasonable people can disagree on where to draw that line, but can there be any serious argument that it ought to be somewhere south of 2.5 million?

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