Marketers hope travel promotion act can lure visitors

The last 10 years have been tough ones for United States tourism marketers, particularly those focused on drawing visitors from overseas. New Orleans faces the increasingly difficult challenge of enticing travelers from other countries, and the city certainly isn’t alone: Some tourism researchers go so far as to say that the country as a whole is waging a losing battle for the international tourism dollar.

A recent study by Pennsylvania-based Oxford Economics says the U.S. has fallen short in selling itself to international travelers. In their report entitled “Lost Decade: the High Costs of America’s Failure to Compete for International Travel,” the analysts say the U.S. has been caught unaware as other countries sailed past it in the international travel business. “The United States has missed out on a global boom of historic proportions,” the report states.

The evidence the analysts cite is almost shocking. From 2000 through ’09, the report says:

nInternational tourist arrivals worldwide grew by nearly 30 percent.

nInternational travel became one of the fast-growing segments of the global economy.

nVisits by international travelers to the U.S. fell by 9 percent.

Adam Sacks, managing director of Oxford Economics’ tourism division, says the picture isn’t pretty. “We’ve lost ground in the course of a decade, but worse than that, we’ve lost market share to our competitors – other destinations have grown their markets while ours has shrunk,” he says.

Sacks says a drop-off in visitor traffic isn’t unusual in the wake of major disruptions or events such as the U.S. has seen in the past decade. He points to instances of terrorism, a spike in energy prices and catastrophic events as causing sharp drops in visitor numbers. “But typically, when a destination encounters these external obstacles, after they end there’s a rebound in activity, and we haven’t seen a rebound,” he says.

Despite declining inbound traffic, Sacks says surveys of international travelers show that they continue to rank the U.S. among the countries they most want to visit. The problem, he says, isn’t the product but a lack of marketing.

“The U.S. is not influencing travel decisions. Meanwhile, all the destinations against whom we compete have nationally funded destination promotion,” he says.

The U.S. travel promotion industry used the research done by Oxford Economics to lobby for a boost in tourism marketing. The focus of their effort was a bill proposed late last year called the Travel Promotion Act, which will allow the establishment of a promotional program to compete for overseas travelers. Funding for the program would come from a $10 fee paid by overseas visitors to the U.S. Sacks says revenue from the fee could make $100 million, plus matching funds from the private sector, available for a marketing program. President Obama signed the measure into law on March 4.

Stephen Perry, president and CEO of the New Orleans Convention and Visitors Bureau, hailed Congressional passage of the Travel Promotion Act as momentous. “This historic vote will help the United Sates welcome millions of new international visitors and create thousands of American jobs,” he said.

Exactly how the anticipated marketing funds would be deployed is still to be determined. In fact, deciding how to allocate any marketing money could turn into almost as big a job as gaining passage of the Travel Promotion Act. But New Orleans could fare well in any case, based on the clout Perry has gained in national tourism circles.

In February, President Obama named Perry one of 29 hospitality industry executives to serve on the U.S. Travel and Tourism Advisory Board. He is one of only two board members representing major urban destinations. (The other is from Las Vegas.)

Additionally, Perry sits on the board of the U.S. Travel Association, and this summer he will take over as board chairman of Destination Marketing Association International.

Oxford Economics estimates that a successful international marketing program could draw 1.6 million additional visitors from other countries, and generate $4 billion in consumer spending annually. Perry says the spinoff benefit for New Orleans will be increased international market share and “a boost to the city’s most important economic engine.”

The Convention and Visitors Bureau says that until 2005, about 10 percent of visitors to New Orleans in any given year came from outside of the U.S. Because the Department of Commerce hasn’t included New Orleans in its international visitor surveys since 2005, it’s hard to say how well the city currently fares in the global marketplace. But Perry sees a brightening future.

“The Travel Promotion Act will allow us to accelerate our aggressive sales, marketing and public relations internationally with our offices in the UK, Germany, Mexico and France,” he says.

Perry also said the Convention and Visitors Bureau “will pursue co-operative agreements with other CVBs around the country, particularly the southern region, to encourage international travelers to visit multiple cities and states once they arrive in the U.S.”

Still, hurdles to international travel remain. Weakness in many national economies lingers, dampening prospects that consumers will flock toward long-haul destinations anytime soon. In addition, currency exchange rates between Europe and the U.S, which for a time favored U.S. travel, aren’t so attractive now.

It may take considerable marketing to overcome the hassle factor at U.S. airports. Surveys show that heightened security measures at airports has turned off many prospective travelers. As long as security alerts remain high, international leisure travel to the U.S. might be anything but leisurely.

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