U.S. tourism plan shows a shift in focus and goals over the last decade

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Brand USA CEO Chris Thompson speaking at the IPW conference in Orlando.
Brand USA CEO Chris Thompson speaking at the IPW conference in Orlando. Photo Credit: Courtesy of U.S. Travel Association

ORLANDO -- A new strategy to boost international visitation set forth by the Commerce Department signals that government considers tourism to be a national priority, said travel industry leaders who gathered for the annual IPW conference.

It also reflects vast social changes since the last tourism strategy launched in 2012.

The plan, unveiled here June 6, aims to help the industry recover from its disproportionate pandemic-era hit by removing barriers to entry and promoting the U.S. abroad in order to achieve a goal of 90 million international visitors spending about $279 billion annually by 2027.

The plan differs from the strategy put in place by the Obama administration, with a focus on diversity, equity and inclusion and robust consideration of the climate.

"This one addresses things that are top of mind within the industry, all the things the industry is being held accountable for," said Chris Thompson, CEO of Brand USA, the public-private agency responsible for marketing the U.S.

The strategy's visitor target is notably lower than the one set in 2012 of 100 million, but the spending goal is up.

Thompson said that takes into account the pandemic impact but also that when the target was 100 million visitors, the $250 billion annual spending target was achieved before the visitor goal, which was never hit.

"They thought it was going to take more visitors to get to the spend, and we ended up getting a better mix of visitors who spent more," Thompson said.

"Our goal is not to host everybody in the world. Our goal is to maximize travel and tourism as an export. And so if you're going to hit one of the goals, the money goal is the one you're trying to hit."

Changes in the last decade

The plan reflects a nation that has been changed over the past 10 years by the pandemic, the Black Lives Matter and #MeToo movements and a magnitude of calamitous climate events.

"So many things have happened since the first plan was put together as relates to not only a global pandemic but intergenerational social unrest, generational political unrest, lots of things that changed the world," Thompson said.

The strategy aims to extend the benefits of travel and tourism by supporting diverse tourism products and focusing on underserved communities and populations.

That includes attracting a "diverse workforce" by emphasizing recruitment from a variety of higher education institutions such as historically Black colleges and universities and those serving Hispanic, Native American and Alaska Native peoples. 

The plans also suggests supporting federal hiring, internship and volunteer programs and investments in employee housing and training. 

The focus on hiring also reflects the current staffing crisis.

"The pandemic rocked our labor world," Thompson said. "The plan made that a priority because our industry is so labor intensive, at every level."

The strategy aims to reduce travel and tourism's contributions to climate change and also build a tourism sector resilient to natural disasters and climate impact.

For example, it calls for measuring and setting science-based emissions reductions and net-zero targets throughout the travel sector and investments in electrical vehicles, public transit and more bike paths and walkways in visitor areas. It also aims to identify opportunities for ecotourism to support conservation and restoration efforts.

What hasn't changed is Brand USA's role in marketing the nation abroad. 

"It revalidates the commitment to Brand USA and the way we've evolved since the first plan and how we're continuing to evolve," Thompson said.

Outgoing U.S. Travel CEO, Roger Dow, at IPW.
Outgoing U.S. Travel CEO, Roger Dow, at IPW. Photo Credit: TW photo by Johanna Jainchill

Goals that light a fire

Both Thompson and Roger Dow, the outgoing CEO of the U.S. Travel Association, said that the most significant aspect of the plan was its goals.

"The most important thing is that [Commerce] put a stake in the ground of how many visitors they want," said Dow. "That's the only way you rally people."

Dow said that a mandate from the White House prompts interagency cooperation, such as from Homeland Security and the State Department, and inspires agencies to act to solve problems. One such issue is the backlog in visa-processing times, which Dow called "totally unacceptable." Wait times in some countries to get an interview exceed one year. 

"When they set a goal and try to hit it -- and it becomes important to the president -- people start scrambling and doing things," Dow said.   

Thompson said the visitor and spend targets give Brand USA a "new North Star" and signals the administration's understanding of tourism's value. 

"The fact that we have a second version of the plan, the fact that it's a priority, is the big news," he said. "And it's going to be very prescriptive and helpful as we try to figure out what the next normal looks like with our industry being disproportionately affected by the pandemic." 

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