Travel Takes Priority

President Obama’s Jan. 19, Executive Order significantly increased the profile of travel and tourism in the United States, with the President proclaiming travel a national priority. The Administration followed with the May 10 announcement of the highly anticipated National Travel and Tourism Strategy, setting a goal of increasing U.S. jobs by attracting and welcoming 100 million international visitors annually. By the end of 2021, it is estimated these visitors will spend $250 billion in the U.S. annually.

While most countries around the world have a “Ministry of Tourism” to coordinate governmental and private efforts to attract foreign visitors, the United States has never invested in such an effort. The National Travel and Tourism Strategy marks a shift in U.S. policy, long advocated by AH&LA, U.S. Travel Association, and the Discover America Partnership, that recognizes the opportunities in making America the top tourist destination in the world.

For instance, international spending on U.S. travel and tourism-related goods and services set an all-time record of $153 billion in 2011, an 8.1 percent increase from 2010, and supported an additional 103,000 jobs for a total of 7.6 million industry jobs. This positive trend is continuing in 2012 with more than 4.2 million international visitors traveling to the United States in February 2012, a 9 percent increase over February 2011, and the 11th straight month of increases in total U.S. visits. As these numbers suggest, increasing travel to the United States is creating jobs and growing the economy.

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Having established the benefits and opportunities this strategy presents, let’s look at some of the details.

At the top level, the National Travel and Tourism Strategy maps out what the government can and will do to enable job growth in the travel and tourism industry. The Department of Commerce will create a national travel and tourism office to provide day-to-day support in order to implement the National Travel and Tourism Strategy. This is the infrastructure needed to ensure that this initiative continues to move forward and travel remains a priority.

Reforming the visa process is a key part of the National Travel and Tourism Strategy. President Obama has instructed agencies to reduce institutional barriers to travel, which includes expanding the Visa Waiver Program. In addition, the plan instructs the Departments of State, Commerce, and Homeland Security to work together to enhance U.S. visa processing to meet the expected growth in demand, expand trusted traveler programs and expedite screening initiatives, and improve the processes for arrival and aviation security screening. Advances in technology and infrastructure will be aimed at streamlining the visa application process and ensuring that international travelers can enter our country securely and efficiently.

In order to capitalize on growing demand created by the great work of Brand USA in promoting the United States abroad, federal agencies will create a welcoming message for international visitors. Senior government officials will serve as spokespeople, while agencies utilize websites and social media tools to showcase the tourism opportunities in America. Agencies are also in the process of developing ways to tailor information to assist visitors in planning trips to and within the United States so that they can stay longer and visit more locations.

The Administration also realizes that there may be a perception problem preventing visitors from coming to the United States due to security procedures put in place over the past decade. As a result, the government will institute workforce development and training for Federal workers so that they are prepared to better serve a diverse audience of visitors. Agencies will provide information and interpret content for non-English speaking visitors via new technologies like smartphones and translation applications.

Perhaps the most important aspect of this plan appears in the report’s conclusion:

The President has elevated the promotion of travel and tourism as a top job creating priority for the United State government.

After years of the lodging industry promoting the benefits of travel to the economy, the President and Congress are now our leading advocates, with a new strategy outlining steps to create positive results. Hoteliers can now look forward to working with agencies to implement plans to significantly increase international visitors here, as opposed to spending time and resources to convince lawmakers that it is a valuable effort. That is a major victory and we at AH&LA look forward to building on this success.