Insight: No 'quick fix' for the tourism industry | Bruce Turkel

The Alabama Post Register followed my blog posts on the oil disaster and Gulf Coast tourism. For original article, click here.
Since the tragic BP oil spill began, I’ve been inundated with requests from experts and regular folks alike who want to know how much money various Gulf Coast communities will have to spend to repair their tourism industries.

Paradoxically, I believe the question is not how much should be spent, but what happens if we don’t spend?

Traditionally, the knee-jerk response of large organizations such as the federal government and BP is to throw big money at big problems. So figuring out how much to spend might be as irrelevant as it is incalculable. Instead, let’s look at the reasons why this money has to be spent.

The tourism industry has done such a bad job of promoting its business benefits that most people do not understand the impact of tourism.

But new data from the Travel Industry Association reaffirm travel as a critical engine of the American economy. For instance:

  • Direct spending by domestic and international travelers generated $704 billion in the nation’s economy last year.
  • The industry represents one of America’s largest employers, accounting for more than 10 million direct and indirect jobs.
  • Although the travel workforce has declined as a result of the prolonged recession, the industry expects to add 90,000 new American jobs in travel this year due to modest gains.
  • The Travel Industry Association projects domestic travel will be up 2 percent over last year, and international arrivals are expected to increase nearly 3 percent over 2009.

Remember, though, that travelers spend money on more than just hotels and attractions. They are directly responsible for enormous purchases of entertainment, retail, real estate, professional services and most every other industry’s products.

Because there is no one number that covers the impact of tourism, no one really knows the value of the industry’s true impact on the economy.

Besides the immediate purchasing power of tourism, the industry also has an enormous influence on a community’s business growth. Most forward-thinking cities and regions have their own economic development offices charged with bringing new business, investment and, ultimately, jobs to their communities.

Talk to the people charged with attracting business to their area, and they’ll tell you that tourism is the front door of economic development. After all, people don’t move their businesses to a community they haven’t visited.

But perhaps most vital, tourism helps create our positive views of people and countries in faraway places. Tourism also helps people who visit us go home with improved visions of America and Americans.

According to a 2006 survey by RT Strategies, people who have visited the U.S. are 74 percent more likely to have a favorable opinion of our country. Or, as Mark Twain wrote more than 140 years ago in “Innocents Abroad,” “Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts alone. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one’s lifetime.”

Think about the cost of peace of mind. How much was that feeling worth on Sept. 10, 2001, the day before 9/11? How much would you pay to get it back now? Translated into today’s terms, what was the value of an unsoiled coast before BP’s deepwater pipe began spewing thousands of barrels of poison into the Gulf? Unfortunately, the amount can’t be truly calculated.

The rescue of the tourism industries in the Gulf states will be a long haul and will mirror the cleaning efforts currently underway from Louisiana’s marshlands to Florida’s beaches. There is no quick fix, so Gulf communities must begin now to save and ultimately rebuild their economically critical tourism sectors.

Bruce Turkel is CEO of TURKEL, a brand management firm. His e-mail is bturkel@turkel.info.

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