I spend a lot of time working in the tourism industry so I think about it a lot. But for the past couple weeks my wife and I have been traveling throughout northern Spain and I’ve been living tourism as well. Because travel is such a normal part of our everyday lives, we seldom stop to think about how significant an industry, and what a world-changer, tourism has become.
It’s not just the fault of our casual thoughts about travel, though. Rather it’s because the industry has never figured out how to demonstrate to the world at large how much commerce it is responsible for. After all, the categories that are included in tourism’s official revenue totals usually include transportation, lodging, and some services (tour guides, for example) but often don’t include most dining, professional services or retail sales. Omitting this last category is especially foolish when you consider that shopping is now recognized as travelers’ number one activity worldwide.
Think back to the last place of interest you traveled to. Maybe it had been a famous battlefield (Gettysburg, say, or Pearl Harbor) or an important maritime community (Barcelona or San Francisco) back in the day. Regardless of its previous claim to fame, now the area probably supports its citizens by attracting tourists. Today its former glory (or infamy) has been replaced by hordes of world citizens in brightly colored tee shirts pulling over-packed wheeled suitcases. But despite the crowds, travel is still so underrated as a source of revenue and taxes that until very recently even the United States government didn’t have an office specifically dedicated to attracting tourism to the country.
That is particularly surprising when you consider that unemployment is one of the most pressing problems the world over, with the US unemployment rate at 9.1% and Spain’s count almost reaching 21%. Not only do travel related businesses create a significant number of jobs, but travel is one of the few industries where a worker can enter reasonably unskilled and emerge a short five or 10 years later as an assistant manager, for example, with a real career path and significant opportunity to responsibly support their family. At home, we call this rags to riches story the American Dream, but it’s actually the dream of aspiring populations all over the world. And thanks to the tourism industry, it can come true.
Tourism is also a relatively “clean” industry. Sure there’s the carbon impact of moving bodies from place to place and the development issues of providing lodging for all those bodies. Compared to mining or manufacturing, however, tourism’s ecological costs are negligible.
But there’s an even more important service that the sector provides in today’s world. Because when we travel to other places around the world, and when people from other countries visit us, the world becomes a smaller, and a friendlier, place. More than 140 years ago, in his classic travelogue Innocents Abroad, Mark Twain explained it this way:
“Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one’s lifetime.”
I couldn’t have said it better myself. Truth be told, I wouldn’t try.