Since the tragic oil spill began I’ve been inundated by reporters wanting 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. Travelers spend money in 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. But because there is no one SKU number that covers the impact of tourism, as you would find in health care or chemicals say, no one really knows the value of the industry.
Besides the immediate purchase 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. If you talk to the people charged with attracting business to their area, they’ll tell you that tourism is the front door of economic development. After all, no one moves their business 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 over 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 September 10th, 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?
More importantly, how much should they pay to fix the damage?