On Site: A Wrap-Up of the Global Travel & Tourism Summit


U.S. Travel Association President and CEO Roger Dow speaks at the Global Travel & Tourism Summit in Las Vegas. // (c) 2011 TravelAgentCentral.com

Travel Agent was on hand for the World Travel & Tourism Council’s (WTTC) Global Travel & Tourism Summit (GTTS) last month in Las Vegas, which drew nearly 1,000 attendees from around the globe.

The WTTC, a global forum for business leaders in the travel & tourism industry, is comprised of chairmen and CEOS of 100 travel and tourism companies worldwide. The WTTC works to raise awareness of travel and tourism as one of the world's largest industries, supporting more than 258 million jobs worldwide and generating some 9.1 percent of the global GDP.

U.S. Visas for Travelers From Brazil, India and China

One of the hot topics discussed just prior to the GTTS was that of easing the visa process for allowing travelers from Brazil, India and China into the U.S. These three countries have an exploding middle class, with a pent-up demand to travel to the U.S.; however, in some cases, prospective travelers must wait months for a visa interview with the U.S. and then travel thousands of miles with their families for the process to take place.

Roger Dow, president and CEO of the U.S. Travel Association, who has been fighting to improve this process, said that many of the challenges reflect steps that were taken by the U.S. right after 9/11 to secure travel.

And while the current Obama administration is aware of the issues, Dow noted: “We still don’t have it as a Presidential priority to improve the visa process. We need more than is being done right now. We understand the problem but it needs to be made a higher priority,” he said.

Of note was the fact that the CEO of a new U.S. organization, the Corporation for Travel Promotion, was also announced on the eve of the GTTS.

Jim Evans, former CEO of Best Western International, has been appointed to that new spot. He’ll now begin forming the corporate infrastructure that will launch the first-ever marketing campaign for the U.S. abroad, which will like begin before the end of the year. The program will have a budget of up to $200 million, with half of the funding coming from the private sector and no cost to U.S. taxpayers.

Mexico's President Speaks Out

Meanwhile, the GTTS program drew a list of heavy hitters from the international arena, including Mexico’s President Felipe Calderón, who was interviewed on stage by travel journalist Peter Greenberg. Calderón responded to questions on Mexico’s crime issues, saying,  “We are dealing with that and we are fixing that,” he said, noting that Mexico is building a federal police force and implementing a better justice system. He also pointed out that Mexico’s homicide rate per 100,000 people is lower than that of Washington, D.C., Atlanta or New Orleans.

Moreover, “we are establishing tourism at a national priority...from federal to local level,” said Calderón, who has created the new position of Secretary of Tourism to his cabinet and declared 2011 as “the Year of Tourism” for Mexico.

“We signed a commitment in which every single government, local governor, mayor, congressman and everyone in the private sector is committed to in order to promote the dream,” he said. “Today, Mexico is the 10th country in the world most visited by tourism; we want it to be in the top five countries by the year 2020.”

Along these lines, new highways are being built in the country, as are new airports, including one on the Riviera Maya. Cancun International Airport will also be getting a second runway. New programs to teach English are being established at Mexico’s schools, where education on tourism services are also being prioritized.

China Makes Tourism a Top Priority

Shanzhong Zhu, Vice Chairmain of the China National Tourism Administration, likewise showed his country’s commitment to the travel industry, having declared this year as the “Year of the Tourist.”

“China stands ready to work with other countries and regions toward the increase in inbound and outbound travelers,” Zhu told GTTS attendees, pointing to the government’s commitment to support infrastructure, such as airports, highways and hotels, that will help grow the country’s tourism product, albeit at a sustainable level.

Chinese Vice Premier Wang Qishan had stated earlier this year that the country would “strive to develop tourism into a strategic pillar industry of the nation's economy over a five-year plan period from 2011 until 2015,” according to China Daily.

U.S. Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood speaks at the Global Travel & Tourism Summit. // (c) 2011 TravelAgentCentral.com

Domestic Travel Policies Enter the Spotlight

The U.S. government was highly represented on the GTTS agenda, with Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood pointing out recent initiatives that have enhanced the travel experience. He cited, as an example, the Open Skies program, which has enabled the U.S. to have agreements with 100 partners from all over the world. Such agreements are aimed at “eliminating government interference in the commercial decisions of air carriers about routes, capacity, and pricing, freeing carriers to provide more affordable, convenient, and efficient air service for consumers,” according to the U.S. Department of State. As for Open Skies, “there will be more agreements,” said LaHood. “We are meeting with more countries right now.”

New passenger-rights rules proposed by the DOT earlier this year will also ease travel, he said. The DOT recently added international flights to the current ban on keeping passengers stranded on a delayed domestic flight for more than three hours.

All in all, however, it was the prospect of new rail travel within the U.S. that LaHood was most excited about. He revealed that the U.S. will indeed have a high-speed rail system within 25 years. The $10 billion system, which will impact 80 percent of Americans, will take passengers from Southern California to Las Vegas, or from Boston to Washington, D.C. “in a fraction of the time it takes to drive.”
“We will be getting people on trains going where they want to go at a cost they can afford,” he said, noting that he’s traveled to 15 countries to examine their high-speed rail networks.

LaHood, who noted he is a Republican working in a Democratic administration, said that “we’ve never had a government that made the investment in such a system. Americans are ready for high-speed rail, he said. “It’s time to get them out of their cars and out of the congestion.”

Only three states, Ohio, Florida and Wisconsin, have turned down federal funding to implement their rail systems, LaHood told the audience.

In other transportation issues, LaHood said many cities have invested in making the conditions of their airports better so that the passenger experience has been improved.

“We want people to realize that when they go from one city to another they will be treated with respect,” he said. Additionally, “We want airports to be “multi-modal,” so that they will have transportation from the airport once they arrive,” LaHood added.

Valerie Jarrett, Senior Advisor to President Barack Obama, who was interviewed on stage by Kathleen Matthews, EVP, Global Communications & Public Affairs for Marriott International, made it a point to stress this administration’s support for the travel industry.

“For President Obama, travel is about more than just conducting official business,” said Jarrett.  “It’s about fostering understanding and trust, and building relationships in an interconnected world.”

Jarrett recalled traveling with the President Obama to Cairo early in his term and hearing him lay out many important foreign policy priorities while giving a speech at Cairo University. “My belief is that the interest we share as human beings are more powerful than the forces that drive us apart,” she recalled him saying. “The President relishes these opportunities to visit other countries.  It’s a chance to meet people, and exchange ideas, and dreams, and aspirations. That is why the President encourages all Americans, particularly our young people, to travel both within the U.S. and abroad. The more we learn about different cultures the better partners we will be in the global marketplace,” she said.

Matters of Transportation Security

The following day, Janet Napolitano, the U.S. Secretary of Homeland Security, during an on-stage interview, emphasized that she had really wanted to attend the GTTS conference so that she and the group could have a dialogue about making travel a better experience. “Partnerships that have been formed, for example, with WTTC, can be key moving forward. I think a lot of you have ideas and we are ready to share with you to form a true partnership,” she said.

The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) is the third largest department in the U.S. government, yet is just eight years old, she explained to the audience, noting that it oversees FEMA and Customs and Border Patrol. As a way of explaining why security is still so tight within the country’s 350 airports, which have 1.5 million people passing through daily, Napolitano said that “aviation has remained a target. Our challenge is how do we make the travel and tourism experience as pleasant as possible and still retain security?”

Some measures that the U.S. has taken to ease travel include the Global Entry program, a U.S. Customs and Border Protection program, which will have its one-millionth member this month. Global Entry allows expedited clearance for pre-approved, low-risk travelers upon arrival in the U.S. The core to enhancing the travel experience basically lies in finding the right affordable and scalable technology that will detect explosives, poisons and powders that will streamline the security process, said Napolitano.

“We want to make it less problematic to get through the [security] gate at airports, such as being able to leave your shoes on,” she said. “I believe it will be technology that speeds up the process.”

Lastly, Napolitano pointed out that DHS recently got rid of the color code system that alerts citizens of the security level. “It was always at orange,” she said. “We replaced it with a system that already assumes we have risks; we will only raise it now when we have specific information that something may happen.” The new system was not even raised after the capture and death of Osama bin Laden, because the DHS did not receive any specific information that anything was about to happen.

“We’ve become more mature in the way we think about risk,” she said.

The DHS does not actually oversee travel visas; they are issued by the consular offices within the State Department, Napolitano told the audience. It does, however, handle immigration-related visas and one of the DHS’s recent efforts was to lengthen the amount of time that student visas for Chinese students last. She noted that she is aware that U.S. visa offices in other countries, which are under fire for not always processing visas as quickly as people would like (for example, it can take someone in Brazil, China or India an exorbitant amount of time to get a visa to travel to the U.S.), are sometimes not able to staff up enough to fulfill demand because they can’t get additional space to lease in order to hire more people. “When you peel the onion, you find out that there are a lot of problems [related to visas],” she said.

For his part, Roger Dow of the U.S. Travel Association, spoke of his organization’s recent presentation of a blueprint to the government to ease the visa policy. Fully detailed at www.smartervisapolicy.org, the plan aims to reform “an antiquated visa process that often drives international travelers to other countries. The heart of U.S. Travel's plan is to increase staffing, reduce visa interview wait times and expand the Visa Waiver Program.”

"As a nation, we're putting up a ‘keep out' sign," said Dow, in a statement when he released details of the plan. "The U.S. imposes unnecessary barriers on international visitors, and that inhibits our economic growth. If we institute a smarter visa policy, we can create 1.3 million U.S. jobs."

By failing to keep pace with the growth in global long-haul international travel between 2000 and 2010, the U.S. lost the opportunity to welcome 78 million more visitors and generate $606 billion in direct and downstream spending – enough to support more than 467,000 additional U.S. jobs annually over these years.

Las Vegas Takes the Spotlight

Overall, while the GTTS was meant to be a boon to global tourism growth, it was also expected to have a positive impact on its host city of Las Vegas.

Rossi Ralenkotter, president and CEO of the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority, said that his city expects to receive a $1 million immediate impact from the 1,000 visitors expected this week from the WTTC. He expects there to be further benefit as media from domestic and international press attending the event publishes stories about the destination.

Next year’s will be held next year in Tokyo, Japan, from April 17-19. David Scowsil, president and CEO of the WTTC, said that the organization was dedicated to holding the GTTS in Japan following the recent earthquake and tsunami. Indeed, Japan expressed its strong desire to show next year’s delegates that the country is back on its feet.

“We want you to see with your own eyes how Japan has recovered,” said Atsutoshi Nishida, chairman of Toshiba at the GTTS. Nishida is also the chairman of the Tokyo 2012 Host Committee for the GTTS. Nishida, who said that delegates wold be able to visit Sendai, the city hit hardest by the tsunami, stressed that next April will be the best time to visit Japan.

“You will be coming in mid-April, a wonderful time of year when we are enjoying spring to the fullest and the cherry blossoms will be in full bloom," he told the audience. "It’s the time of year when the heart dances its most,” he told delegates during the summit's closing ceremony.

Visit www.wttc.org.

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