We have insisted many times before in this column that although an official stance usually places tourism as a top priority, even spelled out as such in the General Law for Tourism, in practice its effects are discreet and can be more rhetoric than action.
This same thing happens in Mexico as it does elsewhere: Despite the extraordinary contributions tourism makes to the economy and society as a whole, power brokers do not prioritize it as highly as it deserves.
We bring up this topic on the heels of President Trump’s budget proposal to Congress last week that effectively shutters the federal agency in charge of promoting the country’s tourism, Brand USA, transferring that organization’s funds instead to the agency responsible for border protection—U.S. Customs and Border Protection. Paradoxically, the same people with important tourism business ties within the U.S. are those ignoring the importance of tourism.
For many years, as a result of differences between Congress and the Clinton administration, the federal government reduced the attention it paid to tourism, relegating it to a tiny office of 13 people within the Department of Commerce. It is true that the political and economic appeal of a tourist destination seem to be enough to maintain the country’s tourism industry; however, international promotion of the U.S. brand is a different story. President Obama understood this and alongside the tourist industry, reestablished this priority by creating Brand USA, financing it through a fee paid in part by international visitors, similar to what is done in Mexico funding the Mexico Tourism Board, with a cap of $100 million. As a complement to this measure and contrary to the policy of the current administration, a wide-ranging program to facilitate access to visas was brought forth. This led to a 30 percent increase in international tourists to the U.S. in 2015 compared to 2010, making it the second most visited country in the world and the first in collecting foreign currency.
Behind the Obama administration’s renewed promotion of tourism are contributions to U.S. society that come from said tourism. For example, the industry generated an estimated $2.3 trillion (twice that of Mexico’s entire gross domestic product), created 15.3 million jobs (1 in every 9 jobs being tourism-related) and more than $157.8 billion in taxes across the three levels of government. Additionally, it should be noted there are two fundamental aspects of a healthy economy and by extension, of American society as a whole: First, 84 percent of tourist businesses are small and medium-sized enterprises and second, the U.S. travel trade balance surplus—the greatest in the world, by the way—is around $87 billion, which helps offset the long-standing commercial trade deficit (all figures come from the private sector, U.S. Travel Association).
Aside from the long discussion about the budget that will follow, at the end of the day, it will be Congress that decides if Brand USA stays or if the message sent to the U.S. tourism industry is that it is not a priority for the Trump administration. The backdrop to this discussion will be that despite the fact that tourism has thrived in the U.S., international tourism fell by around 2 percent in 2016, due to a stronger dollar.
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