Don't neglect travel and tourism

The American energy revolution. The digital app boom.  The manufacturing renaissance. Watchers of domestic and global markets are looking at these sectors and trying to predict if one or all of them will present the next source of dominance for U.S. exports.

As undersecretary of Commerce for International Trade, I also have a profound appreciation for an export sector that doesn’t get as much attention—travel and tourism.

As measured by travel and tourism expenditures and U.S. carrier passenger fare receipts, this industry has produced trade surpluses in each of the last 15 years. Last year again, travel and tourism was our leading services export industry by far.

But having also worked as a Wall Street investment banker for nearly 30 years before coming to the Commerce Department to lead the International Trade Administration (ITA),  I also believe that we shouldn’t overlook this sector’s role as an enormously important driver of the U.S. economy and a key source of job creation.

A few weeks ago, I announced that travel and tourism-related employment reached 7.6 million in 2013—adding 146,000 jobs to the U.S. economy from last year—which included significant growth in the travel accommodation and food services industries

Travel and tourism represents nearly 3 percent of U.S. GDP and the U.S. Travel Association (USTA) recently calculated this sector’s total impact on the U.S. economy at $2 trillion. Travel and tourism is among the top five employment sectors in 21 states and the District of Columbia, and among the top ten employment sectors in 49 states and D.C. according to the USTA.

Recently released numbers by the Commerce Department’s Bureau of Economic Analysis only bolster the point. In addition to the 7.6 million jobs in 2013, the largest figure since the global economic slowdown of 2008, total tourism and tourism-based spending last year reached nearly $1.5 trillion. More than $200 billion came from the record 68.3 million international travelers who came to the United States and collectively spent nearly $600 million a day.

The fundamental importance of travel and tourism to our economy is why President Obama called for the development of the first ever National Travel and Tourism Strategy in 2012 to promote travel throughout the United States.

That importance is also why travel and tourism has been and will remain a leading driver of Commerce’s efforts: whether it’s actively promoting U.S. travel and tourism to international visitors, ensuring input from industry stakeholders is part of federal policy making, or working with the Departments of State and Homeland Security to improve the traveler experience while sustaining border security.

This opportunity has not gone unnoticed, however.

Motivated by the proven economic benefits of tourism, competition for international travelers has exploded over the past several decades. Many countries today—Malaysia, India, New Zealand, and Turkey to name a few—are each spending millions of dollars on their marketing and promotion efforts. 

As for the future, Asian and Pacific nations may represent our greatest competition according to a recent report by the United Nations World Tourism Organization (UNWTO). The region is forecast to control up to 30 percent of the global travel wallet by 2030, up from 22 percent in 2010.

A travel landscape that includes the Grand Canyon, the Statue of Liberty, iconic cities like Chicago, Austin, Miami, New Orleans and Los Angeles, as well as incredible national parks and ecotourism sites needs to remain the destination of choice for all travelers, foreign and domestic.

One of the strongest tools in our toolkit to insure this is so is Brand USA. Created by the Travel Promotion Act of 2009, Brand USA is a public-private initiative and the first global effort to promote international travel to the United States, leveraging federal funding to utilize tens of millions of dollars in private sector investment. Commerce has integrated our travel promotion efforts with Brand USA and are focused on key markets that represent the strongest growth potential for international travelers.

Brand USA’s marketing efforts are supported by fees from international travelers, which are matched by funds from partnering organizations. According to Oxford Economics, Brand USA’s efforts last year led to 1.1 million additional travelers who spent $3.4 billion, directly supporting nearly 30,000 American jobs.

Brand USA’s funding mechanism is now set to expire in September 2015. The House of Representatives passed a reauthorization bill a few weeks ago with overwhelming bipartisan support (347-57) but it has yet to pass the full Senate.

If a reauthorization bill doesn’t reach the president’s desk by the end of the legislative year, the House-passed bill will be scrapped and the industry will have to take its chances with the new Congress. It would be a shame to potentially lose a successful and fiscally efficient tool that enables such an essential part of our economy.

A reauthorized Brand USA is an important tool for an industry challenged to reach the mark of 100 million annual international travelers by 2021—an admirable goal set by President Obama.

Let’s make sure we do everything we can to help insure that we reach that goal, including reauthorizing Brand USA.


Selig is the undersecretary of Commerce for International Trade.