Editorial: A welcome mat to the world

Last edited 09/05/2019

San Diego Union-Tribune

Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar

Earlier this month, I scratched the back of an Indian rhinoceros at the San Diego Zoo, one of the things you can do in San Diego and arguably nowhere else on the planet – at least without risking your life. It's a reason the zoo is one of the centerpieces of a local tourism industry that pumps more than $17 billion into the city's economy and supports 160,000 jobs in the area.

As our nation's economy continues to gain strength, tourism holds the promise of being an even bigger economic engine both here and across the country.

We're on the right track. Just last month, the U.S. Department of Commerce released tourism data revealing that international and domestic tourism spending increased 8.1 percent in 2011, supporting an additional 103,000 jobs for a total of 7.6 million.

Nearly 62 million international visitors contributed more than $153 billion into our national economy – making tourism America's number one service export.

But we can do better. The U.S. share of global travel spending dropped from 17.2 percent in 2000 to an estimated 11.6 percent in 2010. In San Diego, travelers from other countries account for only 6 percent of the 31 million visitors to the city each year. We are lagging well behind other countries such as France, England and Australia in promoting international tourism.

As a general rule, international visitors stay longer and spend more money than domestic visitors on everything from hotels and resorts to car rentals, airlines and restaurants. In fact, the average overseas visitor to the United States spends $4,000 a trip.

According to a McKinsey & Company report issue in June, the leisure and hospitality sector is the fifth-largest employer in the United States. McKinsey estimates that the sector could add 2.1 to 3.3 million jobs in this decade – the third-highest job growth potential by sector.

That's why President Barack Obama has made increasing tourism a high priority in building a strong economy for the future. In March 2010, he signed the Travel Promotion Act that created Brand USA, a public-private partnership to market U.S. tourism initially in England, Canada and Japan and later in countries such as Germany, France, Brazil, China, South Korea and India.

Brand USA's goal is to raise $150 million this year from contributions from the travel and hospitality industry and the nominal fees collected by the government from travelers to the United States from countries that do not require a visa. This would be slightly more than countries like England and Mexico spend promoting themselves.

The president also instructed his administration to create a new national tourism strategy focused on creating jobs by becoming even more welcoming to guests from here at home and from all over the globe.

Across the U.S. government, we are taking steps to improve the process for international tourists that apply for visas, especially in countries with rapidly expanding economies such as China and Brazil, while keeping America secure.

We're expanding travel options for international visitors and growing programs like Global Entry, which facilitates clearance for preapproved, low-risk travelers through dedicated lanes and kiosks.

At the president's direction, Secretary of Commerce John Bryson and I are working together to develop a National Travel and Tourism Strategy. We will especially focus on promoting tourism at national parks and other treasures, including national wildlife refuges, cultural and historic sites, monuments and other public lands that may not be well known internationally.

At the San Diego Zoo, I met with local leaders, businesses and members of the public to discuss how we can take additional steps to increase domestic and international tourism.

Secretary Bryson and I will take what was said at the zoo and at other sites around the country and incorporate it into the National Travel and Tourism Strategy.

As we move forward with the president's initiative, we will work with the city, local communities and other partners to invite the world to enjoy the natural beauty and many attractions of Southern California.

If our economy is going to continue to get stronger, we must tap into every opportunity for growth. The more people who visit America, the more Americans we get back to work in places like San Diego. It's that simple.

I am confident that working together we can put out a welcome mat for the world.

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