The White House on Wednesday sought to reassure travel industry leaders that the United States cares about tourism and hopes to push the industry as the country recovers from a recession that left many without the means to spend as much on vacations and business trips.
Valerie Jarrett, senior adviser to President Barack Obama, told executives at the Global Travel & Tourism Summit that the U.S. wants to help make travel easy and safe, attract international visitors and spur business.
"All of these investments stem from a single belief: If it's easier to travel through the United States, more people will choose to do so," Jarrett said. She was one of three Obama administration officials expected to speak at the summit.
Global tourism took a big dip in 2009 as the economy struggled, with visitors around the world spending $2.33 trillion on domestic travel and $1.03 trillion on international travel, a combined $283.5 billion less than they spent in 2008.
"Where there is commitment, travel and tourism does thrive," said David Scowsill, the council's president and chief executive. "It will happen if you're determined to make it happen."
Americans will spend an estimated $714 billion this year on domestic travel, while international travelers are expected to spend far less _ $171.2 billion _ visiting the United States, according to data from The World Travel & Tourism Council.
At the summit, Jarrett and Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood touted investments in high-speed rail, the creation of a public-private corporation to promote tourism in the United States and agreements to expand international and cargo air routes. Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano was scheduled to talk about safety at the conference on Thursday.
They also faced questions about America's commitment to travel given a perception of preferential treatment to other business sectors and an offhand remark Obama made two years ago that irked hoteliers and other companies that took it to mean he was against business travel.
Obama, who was speaking about companies that took bailout money using the taxpayer funds to take trips, has clarified the remarks personally on several occasions.
"We get it _ we think all of you contribute mightily. You all contribute a lot to our economy," LaHood said. "This administration is committed to what you're all doing. If we weren't, we wouldn't be here this morning."
LaHood's comments came after Scowsill said during his opening address that tourism isn't held in the same regard as other industries in the United States, including banking and automobiles, even though it contributes about as much to the global economy.
The council, a trade group based in the United Kingdom made up of about 100 travel industry CEOs around the world, estimated tourism will directly and indirectly contribute nearly $6 trillion to global domestic product in this year. That number is up from $5.7 trillion last year.
Scowsill said tourism is 9 percent of global domestic product, while autos contribute 8 percent and banking contributes 11 percent.
"Just look at the attention government bailouts and protections those industries attract, whilst we, the tourism industry, receive second-class treatment," Scowsill said. "We need to change the rules."
Jarrett said the United States is working to expand its ability to process tourist visas for international travelers, with the State Department hiring 700 new officers in 2010 and creating about 100 consular positions overseas since 2007.
"We're proud of what we've done, and we will work hard to do better in the months and years ahead," Jarrett said.
Oskar Garcia can be reached at http://twitter.com/oskargarcia.