Want People To Come To The U.S.? Fix The Front Door First

Coming to America? Not lately. While travel in the rest of the world is growing, international travel to the U.S. has actually shrunk. In the past eight years, according to the U.S. Travel Association, global travel has grown by an impressive 33% (to 173 million) while the number of visitors to the U.S. has declined, from 26 million in 2000 to 25.3 million through 2008.

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.

3 comments about "Want People To Come To The U.S.? Fix The Front Door First".
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  1. Brian Hayashi from ConnectMe 360, February 1, 2010 at 6:30 p.m.

    I think many reasonable people would agree that "making it easy to visit the US" should be a priority. Yet there are those that insist we should "...focus all our energies on getting the product and experience right", and that we have our priorities wrong.

    To those people I ask, "When is enough, enough?"

    I argue that the enemy of good enough is perfect, and that while the stats might indeed reflect a low standing for "Ease of Travel", could it be that part of the "Ease of Travel" metric reflect other factors outside of our control, for example America is so far away from Europe and Asia?

    In Colorado, we did away with our tourism budget and the state paid the price for many years. There are many of us that will fight long and hard should our elected officials try to repeat that bit of history. I have no doubt that a similar national board of tourism would be among the top drivers to lift jobs across the country.

    That being said, my real concern with a national tourism board is that if put into being, misguided officials from states and cities will attempt to wind down their own tourism efforts, using the misguided logic that local efforts would be somehow duplicative of a national organization. There is no substitute for someone who knows the lay of the land and has a bona fide interest in filling local hotel rooms and hosting meetings.

  2. Kristin Zern from Association of Travel Mrktg Executives, February 3, 2010 at 9:12 p.m.

    I live in Europe, Spain part of the year and I often hear complaints about our Welcome which isn't very welcoming at all. Its many not want to come at all. Some airports around the world try to create a visually attractive experience, nicely painted walls in soothing colors, art on the walls, information about the how to enjoy the country and even some chairs for those having a hard time standing for long periods.

    Basically we make visitors feel like criminals. The shopping is good for now but when that changes who will come?

    Gary is correct, any dollars spent on tourism to the US has to ifirst deal with the infrastructure issues and how we really welcome foreign visitors before we spend once cent telling people to come here. Product first, then the marketing.

  3. Robert Cole from RockCheetah, February 3, 2010 at 11:12 p.m.

    One can only hope the USTA will do some serious research on the primary obstacles inhibiting international travelers from visiting the US, prioritize them in order of severity, and dedicate some focus to strategically eliminating them.

    We also may want to drain the moat, remove the land mines from the front walk, and leash the attack dogs so the international community can even get close enough to see the front door... :)

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