Local Tourism becomes Top Priority for Commerce Secretary

July 27 2010 | Latest News
Members of the national Tourism Advisory Board met with Gary Locke, to urge him to create a public face for tourism.

July 27, 2010

by Matthew Albright

Members of a tourism advisory board met with Commerce Secretary Gary Locke in New Orleans on Monday to discuss moving the tourism industry forward, especially in light of the BP oil spill.

The meeting, held in the Riverside Hilton, was the group's first to be held outside of Washington.

The board, a group of tourism industry executives that advises Locke and the Department of Commerce on policy, emphasized the importance of preventing widespread damage to tourism in the Gulf South, especially damage to public perceptions of the region.

"Remember, this is a multibillion-dollar industry dependent totally on perception," said Stephen Perry, President of the New Orleans Convention and Visitors Bureau, who sits on the board.

The group urged Locke to take steps toward creating a public face for the U.S. tourism industry, providing greater leverage to obtain advertising funds, which Perry called "the lifeblood of our industry."

"Right now, our industry has so many components, so many moving parts, and that makes us amorphous," Perry said.

The board urged Locke to take a more public role in promoting tourism, and urged him to move quickly in fully establishing the Corporation of Travel Promotion, a centralized entity designed to market U.S. destinations both at home and abroad.

The board also recommended that Locke focus on improving research into the preferences and opinions of foreign travelers to the U.S. It said the current program that distributes surveys to air passengers is woefully inadequate, reaching only a 0.2 percent sample size.

The board pushed for more funds to increase the size of the survey, as well as for alternative methods of surveying, such as e-mail.

The board recommended the development of a crisis communication plan for the tourism industry, using lessons learned from this and other disasters to better prepare for the future.

The board also urged Locke and the Department of Homeland security to push ahead in instituting a fee on foreign visitors as part of the Travel Promotion Act.

Locke said plans to implement that fee are moving ahead, which should yield "tens of millions" of dollars to fund advertising campaigns promoting U.S. destinations.

Locke commended the board for its work. He emphasized the importance of tourism to the national economy, as well as the importance of mitigating damage caused by the spill. "Let's be candid here -- the recovery is going to take a lot of work, a lot of time, and a lot of money," he said.

He said the Obama administration is keeping that recovery as a top priority, pointing to Vice President Joe Biden's tour of the region last week, as well as President Barack Obama's plans to vacation with his family in the region in August. "We've been, from Day One, getting the message out that the food here is safe, the beaches here are safe, come on down!" he said.

The secretary said, "We need hold BP accountable, hold their feet to the fire."

"We're not so much concerned with who's running the company," Locke said in reference to BP CEO Tony Hayward's expected resignation. Instead, Locke pointed to the millions the company gave to fund emergency public relations campaigns as a good start. Louisiana received $15 million from BP for that purpose -- New Orleans took a $5 million cut.

Perry said the meeting was productive for the industry, especially New Orleans. "This was a huge honor," he said.

Perry said it was a plus for big players in the industry to see New Orleans operating normally. "This was important for them to see," he said.