Should Travel Be A Public Diplomacy Priority?

by Steven R. Corman

Jim Snyder has an interesting post at The Hill on efforts to reinvigorate international travel to the U.S. It cites statistics from the Travel Industry Association (TIA) suggesting that travel to the U.S. has declined by one-third over the last 15 years, having an impact on travel-related businesses like hotel chains and conventions. It’s a slide that even the Hughes/Disney production Portraits of America was helpless to reverse.

Now the travel industry is using the concept of “public diplomacy” to push for big congressional funding in the form of Travel Promotion Act. Says TIA President and CEO Roger Dow:

It’s no secret that people around the world don’t like us as much as they used to. All of our research shows when people come here, 74 percent are more likely to feel good about America and Americans. This is public diplomacy.

Snyder’s article puts the cost at $200 million. Curious how the money would be spent, I had a closer look at the Senate version of the bill. How silly of me to think that looking at a piece of legislation would make things clearer.

As near as I can tell, most of the money is destined to set up a nonprofit Corporation for Travel Promotion that would mainly administer something called the “travel promotion fund. ” It can borrow up to $10 million for this fund from the Treasury in 2008, to be paid back in 2009 with interest. Are you still with me? Then in years 2009 through 2012, the fund can obtain up to $100 million a year from fees collected from an electronic travel authorization system that DHS is supposed to set up, provided that the Corporation gives a 100% match (presumably collected from the travel industry). The bill also directs the DHS to set up said travel authorization system, but as far as I can tell it does not fund creation of that system.

So where does that leave us? I have no idea. It looks like this bill could actually cost $400 million, not including the cost of developing the travel authorization system that’s supposed to generate the fees to fund it. But being a neophyte bill-reader I’m willing to admit I could have gotten the figures wrong.

Whether the total is $200 million or $400 million, it’s instructive to compare it to the 2009 State Department Budget for Public Diplomacy. It’s asking for $395 million to, among other things, create 20 new public diplomacy positions and fund efforts designed to help counter terrorist ideology. Let us also remember that the State Department already performs some of the functions called for in the bill through the Bureau of Consular Affairs and an official web site called discoveramerica.com.

Amid budget cuts in U.S. international broadcasting and widespread agreement that American diplomacy is “chronically starved for money,”$200-$400 million to promote travel to the U.S. seems kind of over-the-top, even if it does come with an industry match. This is especially true when, to read TIA’s statistics a little diferently, 26% of those who come will not be “more likely feel good about America and Americans” after they’ve gone.