January 22, 2020

The shortest distance between two points is a straight line…also in tourism promotion

Posted on 20. May, 2012 by Stephan Helgesen in Economy, Social/Cultural

Tourism promotion is not a science though many experts make a good living by treating it as such with sophisticated computer modeling and creative number crunching.

Even futurists have gotten into the act, convincing us they can divine what will make or break a tourism destination by looking at demographics and possible trends in consumer spending.

Tourism is an art…and a business

Tourism promotion is an artful endeavor and requires a few key ingredients that have more in common with human nature than with science to succeed. One of those is having a good product (destination), and the second is an unwavering dedication to promoting that product in high-potential markets.

I know because I spent 20 years promoting the U.S. as a tourist destination, working the local tourism communities in over 24 foreign markets for the U.S. Commerce Department from the mid 80s to 2004. Initially, I worked with the former ‘U.S. Travel and Tourism Administration’ – the then principal U.S. government organization empowered to promote ALL U.S. tourism destinations.

USTTA was populated by a talented crew of tourism professionals. It has now been replaced by a domestic office (OTTI) located in the International Trade Administration part of Commerce.

It went from a corps of highly-motivated overseas officers to an office of bureaucrats/technocrats in one fell swoop. My point in mentioning this is to underscore that government downsizing doesn’t always result in or guarantee more efficiency or better outcomes.

As the U.S. Embassy Liaison to the ‘Visit USA Committees’ (local private/public sector organizations in the host countries) I saw that tourism promotion is a round-the-clock profession demanding much of its practitioners. Our VUSAs worked closely with local tour group operators, travel packagers, travel agents, and major companies to stimulate travel to the USA.

The USTTA, its people and its programs, were important arrows in the quiver of less well-funded states – those without mega-budgets like Florida, New York and California. It was a real playing field leveler and brought millions of new foreign tourists to many out-of-the-way or lesser-known American cities and towns, some of them in New Mexico!

Re-enter the Feds

I’ve just finished reading the Commerce Department’s National Travel and Tourism Strategy (called Obama’s Initiative) and poured over the glowing press releases from the OTTI and the U.S. Travel Association that cheer the birth of this report.

It appears to address the right points (improvement in visa application processes, more efficient airport screening, infrastructure expansion, etc.). Unfortunately, for all its good suggestions it is short on two critical ingredients necessary to keep the U.S.’ tourism momentum going: money and USG leadership.

Because of the spotlight that’s shining on government spending it seems unlikely that this situation will change in the near future. While I’m not a big government person, I do believe we need to look at our competition – foreign countries and their governments – the ones that routinely support their tourism industries with cold hard cash, and then ask ourselves, “Can we really afford to sit on the sidelines refusing to support our industries with seed money or capital?”

What can the states do? Was Charles Darwin right?

Tourism promotion has taken a turn toward Darwinism as it’s every man for himself in these United States. While some states have managed to create strong public/private partnerships or have just appropriated more money for tourism promotion, others are trying to get by on old relationships and old reputations.

The problem with that approach is, to quote an old show business saying, “You’re only as good as your last performance,” and not many new, first-time, foreign travelers have any idea what kind of performance that was or what the reputations were!

Some states are re-branding themselves, trying to appeal to new and veteran foreign travelers with specialty tourism offerings – and spending money in those markets to carry that message. Ours is not, preferring instead to grow revenues through a domestic tourism policy that stimulates in-state day-tripping.

I never understood this concept of bringing Las Crucesans to Raton or Gallupers to Alamogordo. It’s kind of like check kiting, moving money from one place to another – it looks good and buys you some time but adds no new net revenue.

We need a bold new foreign tourism strategy that focuses on attracting more foreign tourists to the Land of Enchantment, tourists who will leave a large dollar footprint here and then go back and tell their friends.

I know the argument against it; it costs money, but that dog just won’t hunt. There are many ways to get noticed in foreign markets that don’t require taking out a second mortgage.

We could start by swallowing our pride and admitting that maybe we should try something old to get something new.

(Note: All the tourism statistics you could ever want can be found at: www.ustravel.org and www.tinet.ita.doc.gov)

- Editor

Stephan J. Helgesen

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