Welcome to the United States

I've always said that if you've got a complicated story to tell, you should create a three-part outline that states your case. It keeps your story simple and comprehensive—and nobody really wants to hear more than that, anyway. So I was impressed last week when I received the executive summary for "A Blueprint to Discover America," which was created by the Discover America Partnership (DAP), and saw that it was divided into three parts that were immediately easy to grasp. I'm pleased, because the simplicity of this document will help get its very important message through: That the U.S. needs to fix a very broken travel system. Since 9/11, overseas travel to the U.S. is down 17 percent. From 2004 to 2005 alone it dropped by 10 percent. The numbers say it best: We're losing business fast, and it doesn't look like things are going to get any better.

Ruthanne Terrero, CTC

The good news is that with this three-part blueprint, things may get better. But first, let's examine just how bad things have gotten and how poorly some elements of a trip to the U.S. are perceived by the international market.

Last week at the State of the Travel Industry Luncheon, Jay Rasulo, 2007 national chair of TIA and chairman of WaltDisneyParks and Resorts, likened the United States to an imaginary theme park called "Park America," at which attendance was at an all-time low. Why? The park first and foremost gives the impression it doesn't really like to admit people. Secondly, its whole gate experience is unwelcoming, and there aren't enough gate attendants to let them in. Third, the park doesn't advertise.

"For this park, the brand message is, 'If you come, fine; if you don't, even better,'" said Rasulo, who was instrumental in helping to found the DAP. (For Rasulo's entire speech, go to www.tia.org.)

Rasulo's "Park America" analogy was a nod toward the three main reasons that visits to the U.S. are dropping, according to the DAP report: One, our visa application system currently has a long wait, and that's just to get the required interview (which is not always conducted in areas that are accessible for some travelers). Two, once they get here, international travelers must endure long bottlenecked lines at their ports of entry. Three, the overall perception of international travelers to the U.S. requires a coordinated communications program. In its blueprint, DAP (which is a coalition of some of America's foremost business and travel industry leaders) provides succinct tactics to resolve these challenges. (To download the blueprint, go to www.poweroftravel.org).

While the U.S. clearly needs to address its inbound tourism, it doesn't seem to having any problems at all with outbound travel. Earlier last week I attended the ATME's Marketing Issues Forum/Travel Industry Forecast, where Jack Mannix, CEO of Ensemble Travel, reported that he was "unbelievably bullish" on his consortium's travel business for 2007. "We have 1,000 locations in the U.S. and Canada who are reporting that in 2006 they had their best year ever. The business is there and people are traveling." Bob Whitley, president of USTOA, echoed Mannix's enthusiasm, noting that since the start of the new year, business is up dramatically for his membership. "People are booking London and Paris like crazy," he reported. Whitley added that business to South America is also very strong, and that while Asia overall was "a little weak," travel to China is strong. "The American consumer has decided to travel," he concluded.

By the way, as you're reading this, I'll be in New Orleans for Orient-Express' Bellini Club's annual meeting. That's a group of top-producing agents that met for the first time last year. I'm looking forward to seeing those dear agent friends I've met already, and toward establishing some new relationships. I'm also anxious to see New Orleans, my favorite city in the world, which I've not visited since before Katrina. I have no doubt that the basic infrastructure of the French Quarter and other tourist areas will be on fine display; however, I'm also sure that the issues of the outlying devastated areas, which appear to have been all but abandoned by officials, are still not being addressed. If only we could harness the energy of those individuals who created "A Blueprint to Discover America" to assist in the New Orleans effort. Restoring the health of the Big Easy is also a national issue, as New Orleans is one of our greatest tourism assets.

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