18 JUN 2019:  Pity US tourism officials. They are truth-tellers to be sure, but always at risk of running afoul of the administration (and ultimate corporate masters) of the day, thus forced to walk a tightrope when it comes to articulating the hopes and dreams – and fears – of an often underappreciated and misunderstood, but vital, industry that generates US$2.4 trillion in economic output and supports 15.6 million related jobs in America.

This is not to suggest that travel executives south of the border are disingenuous in their public pronouncements, but one often has a sense that an audience beyond the immediate vicinity is being considered, particularly under the current volatile administration of Donald Trump.

Long-time US Travel Association (USTA) president and CEO Roger Dow is by necessity a great tightrope walker: honest, but tactful; committed, yet pragmatic.

At US Travel’s recent signature IPW travel trade show in Anaheim, Dow, for example, was asked (as he is repeatedly) about America’s cumbersome visa waiver program, as well as increasingly restrictive border protocols, including recent moves to redeploy border agents (including over 700 serving Canada) to the contentious Mexican border, leading to fears that other newly understaffed entry points will be chaotic over the busy summer travel period.

“Security is something this administration cares about a lot,” Dow stated, seemingly playing up a key administration touchpoint. “But it’s something we (USTA) care about too, because I say it all the time: Without security, there can be no travel.

“Travel strengthens our economy and workforce. And it also plays a critical role in strengthening our national security. Some of the best programs we have to facilitate travel are also the ones that strengthen security the most. For example: America, and the world, are safer because of the bilateral Visa Waiver Program.”

At the same time, Dow quickly observed, “Travel goes wherever it is easiest to go and if you have long lines, people will go elsewhere…”

And he added, “As soon as we heard the reports (that US Customs and Transportation Security Administration agents were being sent to support security at the US-Mexico border), US Travel immediately activated around this issue. We’ve long said that security and economic priorities should go hand in hand, and we made it clear to the administration that resources should not be diverted away from airports or other points of entry… We are going to speak very loudly to address this.”

Dow is adamant in his belief that politics and travel make bad bedfellows. “Travel,” he says emphatically, “should not be used as a weapon.”

But he equally refuses to point fingers or make obstacles, or failures, personal.

In revealing the fact that America’s share of the global travel market has dropped from 13.7 percent in 2015 to just 11.7 percent in 2018, he says, “I know a lot of people want to lay this at the feet of our president (Trump), but we’ve come a long way helping the administration appreciate travel as a crucial US export and job creator.

“We certainly don’t think the president says often enough that he wants healthy numbers of visitors to come to the US, but there is an opening to talk to this administration about policies that help with visitation. And we have done just that… The president was eager to hear what we had to say and was receptive to the message that travel growth can be achieved without compromising security.”

Dow illustrated his point by playing a video clip of Trump declaring in his inimitable way, “I want people to come into our country. In the largest numbers ever. But they have to come legally.”

“The point is,” Dow said, over laughter from the audience, “there is hope.”

And while he acknowledges that there are “one or two people in the administration who think that having people coming into the country from elsewhere is a problem,” he says that there are “hundreds of other people who say, ‘Wrong! This is important.’”

Dow has often steadfastly maintained that every administration he has worked with during his extensive career in travel has had to be “educated” about the value of the travel industry and he says that USTA meets with current White House staff on a weekly basis.

“Travel is trade. Travel is security. And travel is commerce,” he says, with USTA VP of Public Affairs and Policy Tori Barnes chiming in, “This is the message that US Travel takes every day into the halls of Congress, and to the White House and the rest of the executive branch. ¬Even informed people don’t always think of travel as an export. But when an international visitor comes to the US and stays in a hotel, rides a train, eats in a restaurant or purchases something in a store, it is considered an export – even though the transaction is made on US soil.”

Dow is also careful not to overstep when it comes to opinions on the domestic gun crisis in the US – an issue that has been called “the elephant in the room” in discouraging visitors from choosing the US for a holiday.

“When it comes to guns… and you see the horrific things that have happened, with huge media coverage – as they should – these incidents concern us greatly,” he told Travel Industry Today in 2018. “There’s a lot of dialogue going on… but that’s outside our lane; I’ll just say that we must have a secure place, but not just secure at the airports or getting on a plane, but secure wherever you travel.”

But he added in Anaheim that USTA considers the issue “critical” and that “it’s something that we’re going to be at the table saying, ‘everybody, let’s figure this out.’”

At the end of the day, travel is USTA’s true master; but while America is an exceptional destination to visit, Dow – head cheerleader for the American travel industry, but still always the realist – is unwilling to get caught up in American exceptionalism. “There are lots of great places in the world to visit (and) many Americans and many of our leaders assume international visitors already know about all of the great things that America has to offer and think everyone wants to visit here,” he says. “Unfortunately, the numbers tell a different story.”

“Put more simply,” affirms VP Barnes, “that means political leaders should think about the impact on travel when creating any policy… much like they think of other industries, like manufacturing or financial services. We have a powerful story to tell, and it is backed up by the data: When travel thrives, so does America.”

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Michael Baginski

Editor, Mike Baginski is well known and well respected within the industry across Canada, the US, in the Caribbean, Mexico and numerous other destinations outside North America.

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