|By Barbara Ferguson & Tim Kennedy,
Arab News, Jeddah, Saudi ArabiaMcClatchy-Tribune Regional News
Jun. 3, 2009--Ever since Ponce de Leon arrived here centuries ago in search of the Fountain of Youth, Miami has been a legendary destination with its compelling blend of sun, sand and sophistication.
Add to that the region's increasingly international flair and diversity, and it's no wonder why Miami and its sugar-white beaches have become a favored destination to sophisticated travelers from around the globe.
It is here that the US Travel Association (formerly Travel Industry of America) recently held Pow Wow, its annual convention for the global hospitality industry. At Pow Wow, travel is serious business. On the convention floor, more than 4,600 delegates conduct nearly 45,000 business appointments and generate more than $3.5 billion worth of inbound travel deals.
This year the show attracted over 1,000 supplier organizations and destinations from the US, plus another 1,500 international and domestic buyers. Delegates came from over 70 different countries, including Argentina, Brazil, France, Germany, Italy, Peru, Russia, Saudi Arabia and the United Kingdom.
Buyer delegates roaming the ten-acre floor of the Miami Convention Center paid calls on row-upon-row of sophisticated trade booths -- some featuring waterfalls and high-tech walls of digital video -- and were inspired to tap into the multibillion dollar inbound travel market.
According to the US Travel Association, the travel environment for foreign visitors to the United States has improved considerably after a dismal post-9/11 period where the US was increasingly seen as hostile to foreign visitors.
"There's been a new energy around the world since the election of President (Barack) Obama," says Roger Dow, president and CEO of the US Travel Association.
Speaking of a March meeting between the president and 13 of the top travel industry executives Dow said it was the first time that an incumbent president met with travel industry players.
Dow says the US government this year had taken several steps, supported by the US Travel Association, to make it easier for international travelers to enter the country.
Dow cited the Model Ports of Entry, a program implemented at 20 key American airports aimed at speeding up the arrival process and making visitors to the United States feel welcome.
Dow also says that the Global Entry program will be added at 13 new US airports by the end of this year, and assured US Travel Association members that he would push to expand the program to airports outside of the US.
Dow also said that Washington would soon pass the Travel Promotion Act (TPA), a Congressional effort to promote the domestic travel destinations aboard.
"The US is the only country I know of that doesn't spend significantly to build on the desire for people to come and visit their country," said Dow, who added that although the TPA was passed by Congress in 2008, it failed to make it through the Senate before lawmakers adjourned for the year.
"Two weeks ago, TPA was reintroduced," said Dow. "This time, I'm very encouraged. At next years' Pow Wow -- when we have this conversation -- you will be asking me how TPA money is going to be spent." Dow admits that inbound travel to the US was "down a bit" in the fourth quarter of 2008 largely because of the depressed economy.
"The long-haul overseas markets are critical -- it's the darling of everyone's economy and everybody wants them because they stay longer and spend more, $4,500 on average versus about $1,000 for a North American visitor," Dow said.
Noting that travelers spent $770 billion in the US last year, Dow spoke of the importance of the travel industry for the national economy.
"More than 7.7 million Americans are employed directly by the travel industry, and international travelers spend $142 billion here in the US in 2008," he pointed out. Despite this good news, Dow says challenges for the American travel industry still remain. The recent global recession and fears about pandemic influenza have caused visitors to the US to decline by 10 percent. This trend, says Dow, means that international travel to the US has still not returned from pre-9/11 figures.
Citing US Commerce Department figures for 2008, Dow says that there were 633,000 fewer overseas visitors to the US than in 2000.
"During that same period, the number of long-haul travelers around the world increased by 48 million. What's wrong with this picture?" Dow asks. "We didn't get a single one of those 48 million travelers; in fact we lost 633,000 visitors.
Dow blames the fact the US spends no money overseas in promoting tourism.
"National tourism organizations (in foreign countries) are spending billions of dollars collectively trying to get people to come to their countries, while the United States is spending zero," he said.
Commenting on the large number of international journalists attending this year, Dow says Miami is a real attraction.
"This is a totally different place than it was 10 years ago when we were last in Miami," he said. "There are new hotels. There's the development of the beachfront area and the new downtown Miami skyline. And South Beach is hotter than a firecracker. People are really going to enjoy the new Miami."
Caroline Betata, president and CEO of the California Travel and Tourism Commission and National Chair of the US Travel Association, is equally enthusiastic about recent changes in the US political climate regarding international tourism.
"President Obama has ushered in a new era of excitement," says Betata, while sharing her thoughts with the 350 members of the Pow Wow national and international press corps. "There is no better time for us to say: 'You are welcome here.'"
To help improve the arrival experience for international guests, Betata says the US Department of Homeland Security is hiring 400 additional customs agents and immigration officers.
"This has resulted in dramatic decreases in wait times," says Betata, who urges anyone interested in traveling to the US to check out the new US Travel Association website: www.DiscoverAmerica.com.
Eric Danziger, president and CEO of Wyndham Hotel Group and chair of International Pow Wow 2009, was equally encouraging to Pow Wow delegates: "This is a great time for your customers to come to America.... I can't think of a more rewarding business than hospitality and travel. Everyone in the travel business can make a difference and everyone should try."
As for security and hospitality, Bill Talbert, CEO of the Greater Miami Convention and Visitors Bureau, acknowledges that American officials manning the borders could do a better job. "There can be a balance between safety and security and a thing called hospitality."
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