NTA’s Richer: U.S. Govt. Finally Gets It
This is the second in a series of articles about the top priorities in government relations of leading travel industry organizations.
When President Obama issued his Executive Order on travel and tourism last month, few travel organizations were more enthusiastic than NTA.
The Executive Order, particularly elements addressing obstacles faced by overseas travelers to the U.S., gave support to issues long advocated by NTA, whose members include tour operators, destination marketers and travel suppliers. (See “Jubilant Industry Leaders Hail Obama’s Travel Strategy,” Jan. 23, 2012.)
Travel Market Report spoke with Stephen Richer, public affairs advocate for NTA, to get his take on recent tourism policy developments and to learn what the organization hopes to see accomplished this year.
What are the most important elements to come out of President Obama’s recent Executive Order on tourism?
Richer: We’re excited because we think it’s giving travel and tourism its highest visibility ever. The president addressed issues that we’ve been working on for a long time, especially visa processing and visa delays.
Support for the Global Entry Program is great, as it will make it easier for people in China and Brazil to get their interviews for obtaining visas to enter the U.S.
We see a lot of potential in tourism from China. We opened an NTA Visit USA Center in Shanghai in November 2010 to promote travel to the U.S. In the first year, we saw almost 300% growth in tourist participation.
Why has the current visa processing system had an adverse impact on tourism to the U.S.?
Richer: Someone from Brazil can go to Europe without a visa. If they want to get to the U.S., they often have to travel a long distance to obtain an interview to get a visa. And there’s no guarantee they will get it.
Part of the reaction to 9/11 created a warranted process of security that has had the side result of making it a bit tougher to get to the U.S. And this has led to a reduction of people coming here.
We have not kept up with tourism growth around the world. This is why the U.S. Travel Association calls the last 10 years a lost decade. We are probably flat or perhaps a little ahead on the actual number of inbound visitors from year to year. But we are not keeping up with our neighbors and countries overseas.
You believe the President’s Executive Order is also significant because it signals recognition of tourism’s impact on the U.S. economy.
Richer: The fact that the president is taking the time to talk about these issues as the major element in bringing back the economy and expanding is really something.
We also saw signs of government recognition of tourism’s importance at the NTA convention in December. U.S. Senator Mark Begich of Alaska appeared at the meeting. In his remarks he stated that tourism and retail will be the lead sectors in bringing the economy back.
The appointment of Olga Ramudo of Express Travel to the U.S. Travel and Tourism Advisory Board has also been heralded by NTA. Why is this important to NTA’s goals of cultivating the Hispanic tourism market?
Richer: Olga Ramudo is a Cuban-American who has been recognized as one of the outstanding Hispanic women in business. She is also chair of a joint-task force between ASTA and NTA on Hispanic tourism that was launched recently. We believe she will do important things on the board and with the President’s new travel initiatives.
There are a lot of Hispanic people from other countries who aren’t visiting the U.S. And the domestic tourism potential from Hispanic people living in the U.S. is also untapped.
Jon Jarvis, director of the National Park Service, has said that a major goal is to get more Hispanics visiting the parks. Olga Ramudo will bring needed perspective to these issues.
What are other things affecting tourism that NTA will be keeping an eye on this year in Washington?
Richer: We’re very concerned with capital improvements in infrastructure, including funding for federal highways, as well as improvements to roads, bridges and tunnels. These things have an impact on tourism.
The condition of our national parks and lands is another big priority for us.
In December, NTA praised Congress for reauthorizing funding for the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and President Obama for signing the $63 billion bill into law. What is the significance of this?
Richer: The reauthorization of the FAA ties into funding for airport improvements and the creation of a safer air transportation system with greater capacity, both of which NTA heavily supports.
It will also pave the way for our air traffic control system to be upgraded with NexGen technology. Our current air traffic control system is antiquated.
What’s happening with government support for destination marketing?
Richer: A bill in Congress that tourism advocates are supporting is the Travel Regional Investment Partnership Act (introduced in November by Rep. Sam Farr, D-Calif.). It would establish a grant program for destination marketers. Destination marketing will probably be taken up by the U.S. U.S. Travel and Tourism Advisory as well.
If you look back, there already has been progress. In 2010, the Travel Promotion Act created the Corporation for Travel Promotion, now called Brand USA, a private-public partnership for promoting tourism to the U.S. This is the first-ever program of its kind and the first time there has been funding for U.S. tourism marketing.
So we’re seeing indicators that government understands the importance that world tourism plays in our national economy.
See Part One: “ASTA’s Govt. Agenda: DOT Rules, Visa Waiver, Tax Issues – and More,” Feb. 20, 2012