U.S. Tourism is America's Greatest Export Asset

Posted by Mike Tirone - Monday, May 14th, 2012

As our nation tries to rebound our economy, one magical trick has yet to be addressed, which is the functionality of exports. When demand from outside the country rises, jobs rise as well. Both these factors contribute to new income being put into the economy. This is something that has saved many nations from demise, and it is why President Obama, as part of his recovery strategy, has set a goal of doubling exports over five years.

But what many do not realize is that exports are not just contained to cargo ships and freights. America's key exports are services and our country's biggest service export is the travel and tourism industry.

May 5 to May 13, marked Nation Travel and Tourism Week in the U.S. and to tip our caps to the industry, we try explain how tourism needs to play a bigger role in the U.S. economy.

As President Obama declared on Tuesday, “Tourism contributes to the success of the American and world economies by creating jobs and encouraging entrepreneurship, while simultaneously fostering cultural ties and understanding...”

Well currently the international export sector is strong, with revenues reaching an all-time peak last year of $153 billion -- which is about 1 percent of our GDP. Although recent success seems like something we should be proud of, still it's questionable if the U.S. has ever recovered from 9/11.

The industry can grow further, and there are many that have some plausible suggestions. As Slate columnist Matthew Yglesias says:

As far as the national balance sheet goes, tourism functions exactly like an export. Foreigners come here and spend money, leaving extra funds in American hands, with which we can purchase oil and Chinese toys. It’s an export realm in which the United States has very strong fundamentals.

On many levels, the U.S. is the ideal place for foreign tourists. The country has practically everything any traveler could want; mountains, seas and lakes, cities and towns, open spaces and massive metropolises, vast diversity and cultures. And the list goes on. It needs to be a linchpin for our nation's recovering: “Come one, come all! America is actually pretty great!”

Nominally, the U.S. is one of the cheapest of the rich countries in the world to visit, as the nation has extremely low taxes. Don't think so? Take a look at the graph below.

global taxes compared to us

Traveling to Denmark for vacation might be a lovely time, but unless you're living there and taking full advantage of your social health care and education, you're paying more for something you won't be using. Even VAT tax reimbursements don't marginalize the fees visitors pay in countries like Denmark, Belgium and Italy.

But since 9/11, national security continues to rest of people's (and law makers' minds). There is obviously good reason for it, as our nation is as protected (or locked down) as ever, but with the glaring problems with the TSA and the massive headache it is to even enter into our territories, it's understandable why visitors are hesitant to come to the United States.

Being someone who's traveled around various regions of the globe and spent my hard-earned money in other countries, it's a shame that when I present my U.S. Passport to the American Custom's counter, it takes me longer than when walking over the border from Nepal into India.

And for foreigners it is even worse. Dozens of my best friends-- hailing from all over the world, from South Africa to Sri Lanka and Thailand-- have all either been rejected from entering the U.S. with a visa or continue to sit in limbo waiting for their application process to clear. Then they wait some more for an interview. Wait some more. Finally, hearing back at times months later on if their visa has been accepted.

Security in this nation is vital, do not get me wrong, but with much of the world continuing to drool over a “once-in-a-lifetime” trip to the United States (a la “demand rising”), it should be a welcoming, open-armed process to come to our nation. But instead it seems like the welcome mat has been brought inside and eventually that demand and gleaming attractiveness of the nation for tourists will fade.

As Yglesias explains,

The increased scrutiny given to people seeking tourist visas is hidden from most Americans but very annoying for potential tourists. The 36 countries that participate in the Visa Waiver Program that lets people make short-term visits without applying for special permission account for 65 percent of visits to the United States. But major Latin American countries, including Brazil, Argentina, and Chile, aren’t on the list. Even where it’s not viable to expand the Waiver Program, we should try to make the process more convenient.

And it looks like things might be on the upside, as in January the Obama administration issues an executive order to drastically reduce waiting times for Brazil and China. Although it's not as widespread change, it's something to move forward upon.

The United States of America is a fascinating and tremendously giving place to visit. With the world getting smaller and historically poor nations growing quickly, it means the rest of the world has the great opportunity to visit the U.S. 

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