The Invisible Export

By Loyacono, Laura L. | State Legislatures, December 1993 | Go to article overview

The Invisible Export


Loyacono, Laura L., State Legislatures


An ever increasing number of foreign tourists are coming to this country in search of the "real America." That's good news for the states. Although international visitors may be drawn the first time by Disneyland and Sea World, big-spending Japanese and European visitors are just as eager to return to visit a Montana dude ranch or hike to the bottom of the Grand Canyon.

Attracting foreign tourists has become big business. International tourism is an important source of income, foreign exchange and employment. Last year, foreign visitors spent $20 billion more in this country than American tourists spent abroad. In fact, tourism is one of the few industries with a trade surplus. Although tourism is often called the invisible export and its benefits overlooked, the fact is, it generates more export revenue than automobiles and computers. It surpasses agricultural exports by two to one.

Tourism is the world's largest and fastest growing industry, contributing $3.5 trillion or more than 6 percent of the world's gross national product. The World Travel and Tourism Council reports that tourism employs 127 million workers. That's one in 15 jobs or about 7 percent of the world's labor force.

Big Spenders

In this country, domestic and international visitors spent $71.2 billion in 1992 on air, bus, taxi, cruise ship and rail travel; hotels, motels and camping; food and drink; retail purchases; and amusement and recreation. That amounts to an estimated 6 percent of the GNP. The travel industry is the second largest employer after agriculture, supporting 5.9 million jobs and creating jobs at twice the average rate of all U.S. industries.

Worldwide, the tourism industry is still growing, increasing 6.7 percent between 1985 and 1990. Global events such as the fall of the Berlin Wall and the lifting of travel restrictions in the Soviet Union have increased the numbers of people traveling around the world. Meanwhile, the weakening U.S. dollar has made it less expensive for people from outside the country to visit. The U.S. Travel and Tourism Administration (USTTA), housed in the U.S. Department of Commerce, predicts that by the year 2000 tourism will be the country's leading export.

For many reasons, promoting international travel makes sense for states. But the international market is highly competitive. States are not only competing with each other for the foreign dollar, but with other nations as well. Globally, more than 170 national governments and many states are competing with highly sophisticated and expensive advertising campaigns for the business of the top tourism-generating countries.

Luring Them in

State travel and tourism offices participate in international trade shows, produce informational brochures and take out ads in foreign magazines and newspapers. Some states produce slick television commercials in targeted foreign markets and maintain tourism information offices in foreign cities. In 1992-93 states spent more than $16.6 million on foreign promotion efforts, up from $10.7 million in 1988-89, according to an annual survey of state travel offices conducted by the U.S. Travel Data Center. Hawaii spends the most ($3.9 million); Alaska, Illinois, New York, Massachusetts and Texas each spend more than $1 million per year.

The travel offices of 32 states and territories are represented in foreign countries. The clear preference seems to be for representation in Europe and Japan, although Ohio maintains an office in Africa, and Florida maintains one in Brazil. States report that in the next year they plan to spend a growing percentage of their budgets on international marketing and promotion and less on administrative costs.

Even in the most popular tourist destination states such as California, foreign visitors make up only a fraction of the total number of tourists. Why then are states spending so much time and effort to recruit foreigners? …

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