The final panel for Thursday’s World Travel & Tourism Council Americas Summit kicked off with a memorable analogy from U.S. Travel Association President and CEO Roger Dow: the travel and tourism industry needs to be the “red wine of the economy.”
Dow, who gave the keynote speech for the panel entitled “Freedom to Travel,” explained how the sales of red wine skyrocketed following a study that determined that moderate consumption of the beverage had certain health benefits.
“We have to figure out how to be the red wine of the economy – something that people want to do and we give them an excuse to do it,” Dow said. “A big opportunity for all of us moving forward is [focusing on] the benefits of travel.”
However, one major issue in that initiative – and a key focus of discussion on the panel – is the barriers that exist for travelers, from inhospitable treatment of foreigners in customs and immigration to the ongoing issue of visas.
Citing figures from a USTA study, Dow referred to “The Lost Decade” (figures from 2010), during which the United States lost 78 million overseas arrivals, $606 billion in total spending and 470,000 jobs, all of which resulted, at least in part, to the country’s notoriously difficult visa application and granting process.
The panel, which was moderated by CBS Travel Editor Peter Greenberg and also included Mexico Secretary of Tourism Gloria Guevara Manzo and Matthew Upchurch, chairman and CEO of travel agency organisation Virtuoso, emphasised another vital message for governments and security agencies: consider the overall experience for the consumer; i.e., the traveler, with respect to the visa process and training for customs and immigration agents.
“We are in the business of selling stories,” noted Hugh Riley, secretary general of the Caribbean Tourism Organisation. “People expect an enjoyable experience when they go on vacation. When they come back with that silly coconut hat with the antenna coming out of it, or burnt to a crisp or with a weird souvenir to hang on the wall – they want you to ask about it.”
All too often, Riley said, “that experience can be ruined by the difficulty of getting there. Not only are we big advocates of removing visas, or at the very least making the process less painful, we’re also about making people at the borders be nice.”
While Riley stated that he and his fellow travelers had an extremely positive experience coming into Mexico for the WTTC Americas Summit – good signage, friendly tourism officials directing them – that’s overwhelmingly not the case for many travelers, even those who may represent significant investment opportunities, Upchurch noted.
“I’m amazed by the number of high-end business travelers who are being turned down for a visa,” he said. “So there’s not just the touristic angle, but the investment angle, and that starts with how they’re being treated when they try to enter a country.”
Upchurch also noted an interesting paradox within the tourism industry: the vastly global makeup of staff in the industry, especially within the hotel sector, despite the fact that the travel experience itself can be so exclusive with respect to visas and access.
“There aren’t many industries where you can start with no experience and work your way all the way to the top, and every hotel executive has specific stories of exactly that,” Upchurch said following the panel.
There are signs of progress, however, as noted by Dow and other panelists, including U.S. President Barack Obama’s recently created Task Force on Travel and Competitiveness, which is designed to bring more than 100 million annual visitors to the United States by 2012, as well as unwavering wanderlust in the general population.
“Despite the worst recession we’ve had in years, people have shown that they’re willing to travel in record numbers,” Riley said. “If we were willing to remove these barriers, we’d have more tourist than we can shake a stick at.”