After many decades where the US was almost the only country in the world not to have an international tourism promotion budget, the country finally last year got a new organization up and running, an organization billing itself as ‘a public private partnership with the mission of promoting increased international travel to the United States’ and calling itself ‘Brand USA’.
Until then, international promotion of the US was done on a more or less uncoordinated and often competing/mutually exclusive basis by individual states and to a lesser extent by various tourism operators (such as theme parks and hotel operators). This contrasted with other major tourism destinations around the world, and even some very minor ones, which often had substantial international promotional budgets that were coordinated by a central, government funded body.
Perhaps because of this, and perhaps because of the increasingly unfriendly approach to visitors adopted by our border guards, our share of international tourism has been steadily dropping.
So, on the face of it, there’s a lot to like about the Brand USA concept. At last our country has a coordinated central promotional organization to encourage the world to come visit the US. We can now more adequately compete with other destinations
Brand USA is funded in part by charging a fee to incoming visitors (a concept not entirely without its critics) and partially by the various tourism operators who stand to benefit from inbound tourism. The amount contributed by private tourism enterprises is usually not cash but rather ‘in kind’ contributions – free hotel stays, free admissions to attractions, and similar things. These are assessed at full face value, even though their cost to the private organizations is only a few pennies per dollar of apparent contribution, and the US government then matches these contributions on some formulistic basis with ‘real’ money.
Okay, so far so good. So what is wrong with this? Surely any promotion and all promotion is good promotion, right?
Maybe. And, alas, maybe not.
The controversial issue is where in the world Brand USA chooses to go and promote the United States. Should the US promote itself to friendly countries where the US is already known and liked and where the US already features prominently as a destination that people travel to, or should it go to new countries where the US perhaps has less of a positive reputation and currently receives very few tourists?
You could ask the question using some other factors, too. Should we market the US to countries where the local people are likely to speak English and so be able to enjoy a US vacation with a minimum of difficulty, or to countries where the local people don’t know a single word of English?
Should we market the US as a tourism destination to people in countries that are close to the US and well served with lots of affordable convenient flights, or to people in remote distant lands requiring a day of travel, several changes of plane, and a huge cost in air tickets to get here?
And, crucially, should we promote the US to countries where the citizens of those countries can freely travel to the US without needing to obtain a visa, or should we promote the US to countries where the citizens have to wait months to apply for a visa, spend hundreds of dollars in visa application fees, have to travel hundreds/thousands of miles to attend an insulting in-person interview at a US consulate, and then – as often as not – have their visa application refused?
If you’re still not sure of the answers to these questions, let me paraphrase them. If you wanted to go fishing, would you choose a location crowded with fully grown fish that were leaping out of the water in their enthusiasm to grab your hook, or would you go to an empty part of the lake where no fish were apparent?
I’ll wager how you’ve answered these questions – probably the same as me. It makes most sense to promote the US to countries where we are already known and liked and where people have proven themselves to be receptive to the concept of visiting. It makes most sense to promote the US to countries where the people can understand enough English to be able to relax and enjoy an American vacation. It makes most sense to promote the US to countries close to us. And, another no-brainer answer – it makes most sense to promote the US to people who can then conveniently travel here, rather than to people who need to get expensive difficult visas which are often refused.
You know where this is going, don’t you. Guess which countries are enjoying special attention from Brand USA, and guess which countries are being overlooked?
Canada is our closest neighbor, a country where citizens can simply drive across the border to visit, or – worst case scenario – take a very short flight. Canada is a country where most people speak English, most people like us, and a country where their currency strength is making the US a bargain destination. It is many times cheaper for Canadians to stay and to shop in the US than in Canada these days.
So is Canada a major target market for Brand USA, or overlooked? According to this article, it is being appallingly overlooked. Why?
Instead, the people who are running Brand USA are focusing on the ‘glamor’ countries – Brazil, Russia, India and China. At least many Indians speak English, but all these countries are relatively distant from the US, and none of them are historical primary sources of tourism. And citizens from all of these countries must first go through a painful process to attempt to get a US visa (and commonly will be refused it).
A US visa is probably the most expensive and difficult visa to obtain, of any country, anywhere in the world. It is vastly easier for most people in the world to get a visa to Russia, to China, to Canada, to Europe, or even to North Korea than it is to get a visa to the US. Until we have a similar approach to issuing visas to tourists as the rest of the world, we can’t hope to get ‘our fair share’ of visitors from the rest of the world.
There are 36 countries where their citizens can travel to the US without a visa (they are listed here) and in addition there is Canada too.
Why are we not preferentially promoting to the countries that have historically given us the most tourists (all of which are on the visa waiver list), and to other countries where people can travel without a visa?
This is simultaneously sheer lunacy on the part of Brand USA and a shameful waste of public funding.
Lastly, would you like to see an example of how our nation chooses to promote itself? The good news is that the State of Kentucky decided to mount a promotional campaign in the UK. The bad news is that the campaign included nonsensical claims (eg suggesting visitors visit Hazzard Country as featured in ‘The Dukes of Hazzard’ – there is no Hazzard County in KY) and a suggestion that a popular car game is playing ‘road kill bingo’, offering the enticing claim ‘you will never see so much roadkill in your life, and so varied’.
When word of the campaign filtered back to the US, state officials disavowed all approval of the campaign and cancelled its contract with the UK marketing firm. Details here.
But – let’s be realistic. I know how these things are done, having been on both sides of the table in the past. The advertising agency first floats some general ideas to the client, then based on the client’s feedback, creates specific campaign proposals, and after getting them approved, creates the actual advertisements, tag lines, graphics, and so on, getting approval from the client every step of the way.
There is no way that the state tourist office did not participate in and support this campaign, and rather than firing the advertising agency which basically did what they were asked and told and encouraged to do, they should be firing themselves.
As too should someone be firing the senior executives of Brand USA. Give us a campaign selling the US to our friends, and selling it to closer to home people who can speak at least some English and who don’t need a visa to travel here.