National Parks – closed. Museums – closed. Courtesy of government officials – closed. This, from a nation that refers to itself as a leader on the world stage and the world’s most desirable place to visit. Not any more.

For those of us on the front lines of travel and tourism, our job is to fulfill the dreams of the millions of travellers who invest their time, money and hopes into a ‘trip of a lifetime’. It’s these guests who turn to us to convert their dreams into reality, and who equally suffer the disappointment when it doesn’t.

The US government’s shutdown (it’s hard to actually even type these words) has put the travel industry into a horrible position. In effect, having successfully promoted and marketed ‘Destination America’, it is now closed for business including federally operated parks and institutions. National Parks – closed. Museums – closed. Courtesy of government officials – closed. This, from a nation that refers to itself as a leader on the world stage and the world’s most desirable place to visit. Not any more.

The issues around the government shutdown are complex, and go far beyond the travel sector. I understand and appreciate this. Still, the fact that a country has been forced to shut its doors to the world due to government deadlock is shameful. However, it equally exposes how insignificant a voice the travel industry has in the USA.

The travel industry has been one of the great success stories in the current economic recovery, credited for being not only one of the only growth sectors of the national economy, but equally so, a critical lever for national advancement in image and competitiveness. The following numbers tell the story.

As stated by US Travel in their 2013 ‘Economic Impact of Travel & Tourism’ study: “The United States travel and tourism industry continued to grow in 2012. After increasing 6.8 percent in 2010 and 8.7% in 2011, direct travel spending in the U.S. by domestic and international travelers grew 5.3% to $855.4 billion in 2012, not adjusted for inflation. Of this total, $726.9 billion was spent by domestic travelers (4.4% increase from 2011) and $128.6 billion was spent by international travelers in the U.S. (10.7% increase from 2011). Travel directly supported nearly 7.7 million U.S. jobs, an increase of 1.9% from 2011. Travel-generated jobs accounted for 5.7% of total non-farm employment in the U.S. in 2012.”

Select USA media reports; “The travel and tourism industry in the United States generated nearly $1.4 trillion in economic output in 2011. … One out of every 18 Americans works, either directly or indirectly, in a travel or tourism-related industry. http://selectusa.commerce.gov/industry-snapshots/travel-tourism-and-hospitality-industry-united-states

I salute the Trafalgar USA operations team who have done a remarkable job ensuring that, whenever and wherever possible, our numerous guests inconvenienced by the shutdown were still able to enjoy their time in the USA. Team Trafalgar has once again proven why we are the leading guided vacations company in the travel industry since our customers are our number one priority.

There have been many headaches –  reworking itineraries, deviating off closed roads, adjusting and readjusting bookings – but our headaches are nothing compared to the heartache being felt by travellers having to accept a Plan B or having their travel dreams go unfulfilled.

However, what resonates most profoundly with me, beyond the insanity of the US Government, is that the Tourism sector has no voice when it matters. Brand USA and US Travel stand as heavily budgeted tourism organisations seemingly championing the industry for the USA. But where are they now? How can they stand silent at a time like this?

We need to have an equivalent of a “Minister of Tourism”, who defends our industry within government, thereby ensuring that global travellers are able to visit their dream destinations in the USA unhindered and the one in every eighteen American citizens who work within our industry, are able to effectively do so.

We are a powerful, resilient and imaginative contributing segment to the economy. I see no reason that while the Democrats and Republicans continue with their finger pointing, the likes of self-sustaining attractions like the Grand Canyon, Yellowstone National Park and the monuments in DC shouldn’t be welcoming travellers rather than being closed and barricaded.

‘Closed for business’ is not an option, for tourists or for the millions working in the tourism industry.

Destination USA – Leading By Example

Every once in a while – a rare occurrence as of late, but it does happen – a powerful leader exercises authority by acting with incredible humility, expressing genuine desire to learn more about an issue that is growing in importance. Such a period of learning has taken place, surprisingly, in a nation historically not known for humility – the United States of America. The issue: the value of the Tourism industry to American jobs, earnings and general wellbeing.

Trafalgar USA It all started with a flippant statement made by President Obama in 2009 at the beginning of the global economic crisis. His comment was targeted at Watt Street bankers hosting expensive conferences in Las Vegas while Main Street citizens were losing their jobs and pensions. That relatively simple comment opened up a complex process of presidential ‘re-education’, with leaders of American travel companies and associations descending on the White House, united by the US Travel Association, to set the record straight: travel, conferences and holidays create American jobs, fuel the American economy, and strengthen American competitiveness. Travel is exactly what America, and Americans need to get the economy moving again. With one of the most sought after, diverse, naturally, historically and culturally rich destinations of travellers worldwide, the United States of America has an asset that must be put to work.Since then, and to his credit, the President has taken concrete, confident steps to put travel and tourism at the centre of the American economy. Major national initiatives, from the relaunch of Brand USA (first time all states have come together with one voice), the passing of a bill regarding step-changing visa facilitation, creation of ESTA (tourist tax), increasing Consulates to issue more Visa’s in China and now the recently launched National Travel and Tourism Strategy, Significant, strategic, steps of substance which will transform the national tourism industry, quickly.As recently expressed in a White House bulletin,: “Last year, 62 million international tourists visited the United States and pumped a record $153 billion into local economies, helping to support the 7.6 million jobs in our travel and tourism industry. These numbers make tourism America’s number one service export.”

Clearly the President ‘gets it’, and is focused on getting the industry working harder, smarter, stronger, together.

I am in fact currently travelling in the Unites Sates, on Trafalgar’s Historic Highlights. I am writing from the Nation’s Capital this morning – having spent yesterday with my fellow travellers awed by the beauty of the city, poignancy of its monuments and rich history. Speaking of which we leave for Mount Vernon, George Washington’s historic estate this morning.

The global tourism community needs to take notice of this important act of leadership. Through concrete steps, the USA has ensured that it will break through destiantional clutter and showcase itself. And in doing so, positioned itself as one of the world’s loudest champions of the travel and tourism sector.

And now destination competitors!