How Obama’s Efforts to Increase International Travelers Could Impact Boston

By Megan Turchi
BU News Service

If you think your morning commute on public transportation is crowded now, wait until 2021.

In January 2012, President Obama issued an executive order to significantly increase travel and tourism in the United States, with the creation of a task force to implement a National Travel and Tourism Strategy.

By May 2012, the task force, headed by Commerce Secretary John Bryson and Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, announced the official National Tourism and Travel Strategy, which would work toward attracting 100 million international travelers per year to the United States by 2021.

According to the United States Travel Association press release in January 2013, a year after President Obama’s announcement, the United States has made progress in creating the infrastructure needed for this plan.  Much of the progress has been made in improving the process to get visas and by Brand USA, the nation’s first global marketing campaign promoting American tourism.

But, for an international destination city like Boston to attract more international travelers, there will need to be more than just an easier way to get visas – a cultural shift needs to be implemented.

“The local destination needs to figure out who to target,” said Professor Sam Mendlinger, a professor of Administrative Sciences at Boston University and the director of the school’s Economic Development and Tourism Management concentration.

“They need to figure out how to cater to them and work accordingly to develop assets,” Mendlinger said in mid-February in his office.

Mendlinger emphasized that Boston is one of the top international-friendly cities in the United States, but there are other cities that are not as prepared to host more international tourists.

In the 2012 press release for the National Travel and Tourism Strategy, Bryson and Salazar highlighted their strategy to make the United States “the world’s premier tourism destination.”

They want to figure out a way to “provide a world-class U.S. travel experience that will encourage visitors to extend their stays and return to see more.”

Not only will their goals give tourists a better American experience, it will also bring in more revenue to the local economies.

“Tourism can be thought of as more of an export good as an import,” said Boston University Economics Professor Samuel Bazzi, who is interested in international trade, in his office.  “Providing all else is equal, if international travelers are purchasing the same products as locals, I would prefer the international, because it provides foreign currency exchange for the government.”

Bringing in international currencies is better for the U.S. economy than domestic money because it is new currency, rather than recycled.

According to the U.S. Travel Association statistics, in 2013 there were 69.6 million visitors to the U.S.— a number that is predicted to continue to rise to 80.7 million visitors by 2016.

According to the Massachusetts Office of Travel and Tourism, in 2012 there were 2.1 million international visitors to the state.

“Our goal is simple yet bold,” Bryson and Salazar wrote in the 2012 press release.  “Increase American jobs by attracting and welcoming 100 million international visitors, who we estimate will spend $250 billion, annually by the end of 2021.”

In 2013, according to the U.S. Travel Association, International travelers spent $140.7 billion and that number is expected to rise to $169.6 by 2016.

Mendlinger thinks President Obama’s goals are feasible.  The ability to more easily obtain visas is part of it, but he also thinks a shift in American travel culture and understanding is needed, especially in regards to non-English speaking international tourists.

“More people coming have a poor grasp of English,” Mendlinger said.  “What do we have for them?  Almost nothing.  There is little for them to understand – we are not built for that.”

He repeatedly noted that of all U.S. cities, Boston is one of the most accessible for international travelers, though the city is not without its problems.

“But, is it suitable for foreign tourists?” Mendlinger asked.

In the 2012 press release for the National Travel and Tourism Strategy, Bryson and Salazar stated the need to provide a “high quality experience for travelers,” which would include “ways to use technology to provide information and interpret content for non-English speaking visitors.”

In Mendlinger’s cultural tourism class that he teaches at Boston University, he includes a unit about the Freedom Trail, and he finds that the American students think more highly of it, where the international students find it more difficult to relate to.

“The draw is history, plain and simple,” said Sean Hennessey, the Public Affairs Officer for the Boston National Parks Service, over the phone, regarding the reasons tourists come to Boston.  “People come because this is the birthplace of the American Revolution and you can see actual sites; it’s not virtual.”

But, is this history accessible to international travelers?

Hennessey discussed the new free app for iPhone, iPad and Android specifically created for the National Parks in Boston – it is the first of its kind in the National Park system.

The app features lists and detailed descriptions of sites on the Freedom Trail, Charlestown Navy Yard and Black Heritage Trail, along with audio guides for each site.  Also included in the app are premade tours, the ability to make your own tour and a variety of NPS maps

But, at least for now, the app is only available in English. With a potential increase in international travelers, the NPS and other tourism sites across the county may have to think about adding more languages to their tours.

“Tourists want to come here,” Mendlinger said.  “But, they want to see big cities and Disneyland and miss the uniqueness of the culture, nature and history.  We don’t have the information for them to gain access to who we are – we just have the media – it’s a shame!”

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