Friday, January 20, 2012

Obama's Good First Steps for Tourism

Hopefully, the Fantasyland locale is not a portent.

U.S. President Barack Obama announced several welcome steps to boost international tourism to the United States, in a speech delivered yesterday at Disney World, in Orlando, Florida. Meant to address the fall in U.S. market share to 11 percent of world tourist arrivals in 2010 (from 17 percent in 2000), Obama outlined a number of policy initiatives in a new executive order. (You can read the order in its entirety at Among them:

* Expand the U.S. visa-waiver program to more nations, including defacto nations such as Taiwan
* Send 100 additional consular officers to Brazil and China, to help shorten backloads of visa applications that can drag out for months, and thus speed the arrival of more free-spending foreign tourists to the recession-racked U.S.
* Promote U.S. national parks and monuments and rural areas as worthy tourist destinations, to go with urban stand-bys such as New York City, Washington, D.C., Las Vegas, San Francisco and Los Angeles
* Expand Global Entry, a system that eases re-entry into the United States by American citizens to 24 U.S. airports from 20
* Appoint the inevitable government task force to ponder the matter further and get back to him

Some things can be done on a national level by the federal government that can't be done by the welter of state and local tourist boards and hotel, airline and hospitality companies - and especially so compared to pure marketing plays.

An example of the latter is Brand USA, a tourism promotion board created by the Travel Promotion Act of 2009, which Obama signed. It's not clear that Brand USA's efforts could have helped arrest the decline in U.S. tourism had the board been in existence during the past decade. Indeed, Obama's executive order notes that changing global travel patterns, the rise of large middle classes in China, Brazil and India and stepped-up U.S. security measures after Sept. 11, 2001, have all lessened the U.S. role in world tourism. New marketing slogans and advertising campaigns, absent traveler-friendly policy changes, aren't likely to do much good.

Campaign-watchers did not fail to note that Obama made his announcement in tourist-friendly Florida. Not coincidently, Florida is a perennial swing state in American elections. Obama, running for re-election, is spinning his orders as job-creators - an obligatory move in any election but especially so during tough times.

Still, there are concrete policy changes afoot, and this is good to see. Nothing revolutionary, mind you, but these are steps in the right direction.

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