Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Come to America!

Everybody knows that tourism’s big business. And that’s why most countries have national agencies or boards that promote tourism. Think Visit Britain, Tourism Authority of Thailand, Atout France or India Tourism.
The US has been the exception; perhaps, one of the few industrialised nations without a national tourism promotion organisation. That, however, is changing.
Early this month, the US President, Barack Obama, cleared a new law that aims to boost the flow of tourists to the US. The Travel Promotion Act 2009 facilitates the creation of a non-profit national tourism board — the Corporation for Travel Promotion.
Significantly, the US taxpayer will not finance this tourism board. Instead, it will be funded by contributions from the private sector and, here’s where it hurts, foreign travellers! Or to be more specific, foreign tourists who currently do not need a visa to enter the US on holiday provided they have completed the online Electronic System for Travel Authorisation application.
So travellers from ‘visa waiver’ countries, such as those from the UK and the EU, will now be charged a small fee to enter the US. “The initiative will be funded through a matching programme featuring up to $100 million in private sector contributions and a $10 fee on foreign travellers who do not pay $131 for a visa to enter the United States. The fee will be collected once every two years in conjunction with the Department of Homeland Security’s Electronic System for Travel Authorisation,” says the US Travel Association.
Quite predictably, the imposition of a fee on tourists — even a rather low $10 — has evoked mixed responses. The US Travel Association has welcomed the Act, fees and all. Others such as the International Air Transport Association are not very happy as this Guardian piece points out. Opposition to the Act appears to hinge on the apparent absurdity of a measure that tries to encourage more foreign tourists to visit the US by charging them for the privilege. But that really shouldn’t bother tourists from countries such as India: we already pay for that privilege.
Instead, what interests me is the mandate of the US’ soon to-be-set-up Corporation for Travel Promotion. Its objective appears to be to “develop ad campaigns and raise awareness of United States security and visa procedures.” I do wonder if this is going to encourage more tourists to visit the US.
Are marketing campaigns, ad films and information on security and visa procedures going to make more people, especially from growing outbound travel markets such as China and India, interested in visiting the US. Instead, wouldn’t it make more sense to invest money, time and thought in improving the application process for US tourist visas? To invest more in making the visa process less cumbersome, tiring and humiliating? To make travel security processes less intrusive?
I know, of course, that many of these issues are not unique to the US. Travellers to India, for instance, have much to be unhappy about. Yet, with the US, in a sense, telling the world to ‘come to America’ with the Travel Promotion Act, it has the opportunity to do things better.
So let the Corporation for Travel Promotion run marketing campaigns that showcase the very best of what the US has to offer. Let it do all it can to “better communicate US entry policies to international travellers and promote leisure, business, and scholarly travel to the United States.” But let it also do things that make the US an easier and more welcoming place to travel to, especially from countries such as India. That would make the US a more inviting destination; one that more people want to visit.

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