The Department of Commerce issued a press release last week with the misleading headline “U.S. TRAVEL AND TOURISM EXPORTS REBOUND FROM 9/11 DECLINE – International Visitors Spent More in 2006 Than Ever Before”. As a stand alone statement it stated the truth but the somewhat coarse aphorism about statistics being like bikinis holds true yet again – the statement reveals something suggestive but conceals the larger and more compelling fact that overseas travel to the United States has plummeted 17 percent in the past five years. That those that do make it to US shores have spent more is scarcely comforting to an industry that Commerce rightly notes employs more people than “in the construction industry, the business and financial industries, agriculture, education, or healthcare”.
In noting that the “spending represents a full recovery in export value since Sept. 11, 2001, and surpasses the previous record of $103.1 billion set in 2000” the department of commerce fails to acknowledge firstly, that these are not constant dollars and secondly that the drop in growth of tourism actually represents a setback. The more relevant fact is that countries like Japan, Canada, and Germany, some of the biggest source of visitors to the US, sent far fewer visitors since 9/11. The reasons are many but not least of which is, as anyone associated with the Discover America Partnership a business coalition seeking a more friendly face to be presented to foreign visitors to the US, will readily acknowledge is the propensity to treat tourists as terrorists as they arrive at US ports.
That international travel burnishes a flagging US image is not an insignificant side benefit to the many jobs that accrue from tourism. While it is not the Department of Commerce that is the proximate cause for the loss of business – that distinction lies unambigously with the Department of State and the Justice Department, the beneficiaries of the Fortress America idea are other regions like Dubai, South Africa and Europe where tourist and business visas are just as forthcoming as its namesake in the credit card industry.