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The politics of tourism: Travel expert calls deteriorating travel infrastructure in U.S. ‘Third World’

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Imagine if we collectively as Americans owned a fabulously productive gold mine, but congress thought it was just plain wrong to approve any money to mine it — even if the seed money came not from taxes, but from fees foreign visitors pay to enter the country.

That’s roughly the analogy a group of local, state and national travel executives presented at a media roundtable this morning at the Downtown Marriott Hotel. The goldmine is travel, and curiously – despite Disney theme parks, beaches, mountains, New York, Hollywood and Vegas – the United States is unable to fully exploit this resource at a time when international travel is booming.

How can this be?

“Before Brand USA (program) was created four years ago, the U.S. was the only country in the industrialized world that didn’t promote itself” as a travel destination, said Roger Dow, president and CEO of U.S.  Travel Association, which overseas Brand USA.

Roger Dow, U.S. Travel

Roger Dow, U.S. Travel

Dow and hundreds of other travel executives are in town through tomorrow for the U.S. Travel Association’s Educational Seminar for Tourism Organizations.

U.S. Travel is a nonprofit public-private partnership that works to increase international travel to the U.S.

Brand USA is a federal travel promotion effort funded through fees charged to foreigners entering the United States, with local tourism entities matching that revenue dollar-for-dollar.

Brand USA helps leverage small state tourism budgets by helping bring to Kentucky international travel writers and getting the Kentucky brand in front of huge travel conventions around the world, said Mike Mangeot, commissioner of the Kentucky Department of Tourism.

Unlike high-profile international destinations such as France and Turkey, spending on promoting American tourism has plummeted since 1999, along with spending on our infrastructure.

For Kentucky to optimize its piece of the international tourism business, visitors have to get here from the various ports of entry around the United States – New York, Miami, Los Angeles and other cities. Which ain’t easy.

Mangeot noted Kentucky was serviced through Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky Airport, with seven or eight flights each day to Europe. Now, that number has dropped to one flight to Paris.

The United States, unlike competitor countries, hasn’t expanded its air travel capacity to match the increase in global travel, Dow said.

Twenty years ago, the U.S. had the top air system in the world. The U.S. now has an outdated air traffic control system, Dow said, with 37 airports that won’t be able to handle increasing air travel. At major port-of-entry airports in the U.S., it takes between two and a half hours and four hours to get through customs.

“We now do not have one airport in the United States that’s in the Top 25 in the world …. We’re Third World. And it’s a shame. We have to find creative ways to fund our infrastructure; to get us back to what built America ….”

Dow and other speakers, including Mangeot and Karen Williams, president and CEO of the Louisville Convention & Visitors Bureau, used the event to lay out what they see as the impediments to making tourism an even more important economic segment, and to tout Brand USA.

As international tourism grows, the whole Brand USA effort could go away.

The legislation that makes Brand USA possible expires in September 2015. “We’re on a big push to reauthorize it,” Dow said. But Dow made it clear his group, and all the state and local tourism promotion entities, have their work cut out for them.

The bill was approved in the House 347 to 57, he said. “In this … political world, that’s like a landslide, and then some.” Now U.S. Travel execs and other travel officials are waiting for the U.S. Senate to return and take up the re-authorization. But the panel noted both Kentucky senators voted against the original legislation, though neither Sen. Mitch McConnell nor Sen. Rand Paul has taken a position on the re-authorization.

IL queried spokespeople for both senators, but received no response. U.S. Travel also is supporting the JOLT Act, a bill meant to increase the economic impact of international travel by updating the 38 nations in the U.S. visa waiver program to include allied nations such as Poland, Israel and Brazil.

The bottom line on tourism:

The stakes are increasingly high as Kentucky competes against national and global destinations. Nationally, tourism is worth $2.1 trillion. The average foreign visitor spends $4,500.

Travel and tourism contributed more than $12.5 billion to Kentucky’s economy last year, according to state data. CVB officials estimate the value of tourism in Louisville at $1.4 billion annually. In 2013, international travelers spent $181 billion and generated more than $121 billion in federal, state and local tax revenue, according to U.S. travel data.

The travel and hospitality industries are huge job generators, Dow said, with one out of nine Americans employed in tourism or tourism-related businesses. The sector also employs people most in need of jobs including African-Americans, the under-educated and the new college graduates having trouble finding a job they really want, he said.

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