To remedy this, the travel industry has mounted an unprecedented (for it) assault on Washington, D.C., and is on the cusp of having successfully lobbied for the creation of the Travel Promotion Act (TPA). Simply put, the TPA will become America's first official non-profit tourism board, armed with a budget of $200 million raised from private-sector donations and a controversial levy of $10 to be paid by each foreign visitor who does not require an entry visa.
It's already passed the Senate and the House, and if weren't for that other diversion called healthcare, it likely would have already been passed into law.
From the industry's perspective, the legislation and approach couldn't be more perfect or well-timed -- millions of dollars spent encouraging people to visit America and funding that requires no additional taxes to an overburdened U.S. citizenry. But with the legislation come certain challenges.
The first, and most obvious, is that we're actually now increasing the cost of coming to America. In this economy, when was the last time a brand raised its prices as a way of generating incremental customers? Sure, it's only going to be $10 per person (although some question whether the program can be funded and administered for that little), but it starts to add up quickly for a family of 5 ($50) or a group of 50 ($500).
The second and more troubling issue is that the TPA's creation doesn't really address the core issue that's limiting arrivals -- namely, the hurdles we've created for international travelers to get into this country.
The truth is we already have a well-honed brand despite our lack of a national tourist office. In fact, the United States was recently ranked first overall in the 2009 Country Brand Index study of business and leisure travelers by FutureBrand/Weber Shandwick and it ranked first or second in such vital measurements as Familiarity, Preference, Consideration and Decision. Unfortunately, it also ranked in the bottom half of all countries surveyed on Ease of Travel. And therein lies the real barrier to getting more travelers from other countries.
The U.S. is like one of those luxury jewelry shops where you need to be buzzed in just to look around. You know the merchandise is beautiful, but the whole process of getting through the front door and beyond the stare of the security guard can be a bit intimidating and overwhelming. As nice as the products are and as desirable as they may be, you need to make a real commitment to walk into that place. And today, there are just too many other places you can safely shop that can deliver beautiful products without any of the drama and stress.
Before we start spending $200 million to promote the United States, let's focus all our energies on getting the product and experience right. Without a more welcoming entry, I'm afraid we're never going to maximize the potential of the TPA or any other concerted promotion to get more travelers to come to America.
Let's fix the front door to our country before we throw some paint on it.