As U.S. Tourism Tanks, Gov't Drafts Reinhard

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WASHINGTON (AdAge.com) -- Recognizing the harsh reality that foreign visitors who contribute $82 billion to the U.S. economy are increasingly staying home or going elsewhere, the country's tourism industry is bringing in two of advertising's heavy hitters to lure them back.

Red tape and mounting hassles over new visa procedures are scaring off tourists in droves despite the dollar's drop, and inbound tourism, while rising, hasn't yet officially passed pre-Sept. 11, 2001, levels. "There is a perception that it's difficult to get into the United States," said John Stachnik, founder and president of Mayflower Tours, Downers Grove, Ill. "It's not the fear of flying that has turned people off. It's the hassle of flying."

The country's tiny tourism budget doesn't help. At $9.8 million, it's less than half that of countries a fraction of America's size: New Zealand spends $20 million; Ireland, $22 million; Australia, $45 million. Bermuda directs $15 million of advertising just to the U.S., and in 2004, Mexico spent more than $8 million on a single push to lure U.S. tourists.

With the minuscule U.S. budget about to expire in October, the Travel Industry Association of America is enlisting Keith Reinhard, chairman of Omnicom Group's DDB Worldwide, and former Ogilvy & Mather creative head Rick Boyko and his students at Virginia Commonwealth University Ad Center to help. Their challenge is to create a stronger message than the current "See America" effort and make the so-called friendly skies a little friendlier. TIA is also trying to rustle up support for a far bigger U.S. tourism industry campaign.

Mr. Reinhard, whose Business for Diplomatic Action is trying to push businesses to do more to support the U.S., said that last month he presented to travel industry officials his strategic concept. Though he declined to offer details, he said it has since been presented to Karen Hughes, undersecretary of state for public diplomacy and public affairs.

"All the research is if people visit the U.S., they have a much more favorable impression than people who have never visited," Mr. Reinhard said.

The U.S. State Department and Department of Homeland Security, meanwhile, are launching a "model ports of entry" program to make the airport customs process more palatable to foreign visitors. Due to begin later this year at Washington's Dulles International Airport and Houston's George Bush Intercontinental Airport, the program aims to provide more information about everything from wait times to places to visit, and generally offer a warmer welcoming experience.

The need is obvious. TIA reports that 46.9 million international visitors came to the U.S. in 2001 and 41.2 million came in 2003, and it projects final numbers for 2004 will be closer to those of 2001.

Finding funding
The U.S. government's campaign is currently aimed only at Japan and Great Britain and the 2-year-old push, featuring ads from M&C Saatchi and public relations from Edelman, is slated to end in October. President George Bush's budget contains no funding for continuing the program beyond that, although Sen. Ted Stevens, R-Alaska, who originally put the money in the budget, may do so again.

Rick Webster, VP-government affairs at TIA, said the travel industry would like to see much more, but its call for an overarching effort to drive inbound tourism runs into two problems. First, some in Congress suggest the industry gets the benefit of the tourism and should do its own ads, and that anything else would be "corporate welfare." The industry argues that America needs an effort that makes visitors think of coming to the U.S., and then individual marketers can fight for the resulting traffic.

Regardless of how an effort is funded, it's clear to those who work in tourism that something has to be done. Steve Born, VP-sales and marketing for Globus, the world's largest escorted travel company, said not only are fewer tourists coming into the U.S., but "Europe and Canada are capitalizing on that."

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