Hubert Joly: U.S. can do better on tourism

  • Article by: DAVID PHELPS , Star Tribune
  • Updated: May 26, 2012 - 4:55 PM

The sector represents 8 million jobs and is a big export driver, the CEO of Carlson says, but it needs improved marketing and support.

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Carlson CEO Hubert Joly is on a presidential commission seeking ways to attract foreign tourists to the U.S., Thursday, May 17, 2012.

Photo: Glen Stubbe, Star Tribune

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As chief executive of travel giant Carlson, Hubert Joly has a vested interest in increasing the number of foreign tourists to the United States.

More foreign visitors could mean more heads on the pillows of hotels operated by Carlson, including the Radisson, Country Inns & Suites and Park Plaza chains. It could mean more tables filled at Carlson's T.G.I. Friday's restaurants and more business for Carlson Wagonlit Travel.

But Joly also sees a bigger picture of tourism as a growing American industry that can help drive the U.S. economy to full recovery.

Earlier this month he talked about his work on a presidential panel of more than two dozen mainly tourism and travel professionals who made recommendations to the U.S. secretary of commerce and other government departments on steps the nation can take to improve the tourism sector. Among other panel members is Maureen Bausch, the Mall of America's executive vice president for business development, who was appointed this year.

QTell us about your work on the U.S. Travel and Tourism Advisory Board.

AFor the last two years, I chaired a subcommittee focused on international travel facilitation. I couldn't be more proud of the work we've done. Travel and tourism is a big industry sector. It creates about 8 million jobs in the U.S. It's also a big export driver. The money spent in the U.S. is counted as exports. Our goal is to double the number of jobs and increase exports.

QWhy does the U.S. need to change its strategies for attracting foreign tourists?

AWe've lost market share. From 2000 to 2010, U.S. market share has gone from 18 percent to 12 percent. New destinations have emerged. The world has changed. The Chinese go to Southeast Asia; Eastern Europe has opened up.

In addition, after 9/11 there's been a very significant focus on security, and rightly so. But one of the consequences is the perception that the country is not welcoming to visitors. The perception is very mixed, but perception is reality.

QWhere are the target markets?

AYou've had significant growth in countries like China and Brazil. Their standards of living have increased and people want to travel more. But the visa process can become difficult because you have to make an appointment at a consular office and the wait times can be long.

In Brazil you have to wait 150 days to get an appointment and there are only so many consulate offices in a country like Brazil. We compete with Europe and other destinations, and wait times for European countries are typically five to 10 days compared to 50 to 100 days for the U.S. Reducing that is a huge opportunity for increasing the number of travelers.

QDescribe the U.S. tourism infrastructure.

AWe're a fabulous destination. We have the natural resources, we have key cities to visit, we have wonderful people. The president said he was looking for shovel-ready projects [to stimulate the economy in the past]; well, there's no shovel needed here. The national parks exist; the hotels, restaurants and malls exist. If, by 2015, we increase our long-haul international visitors from 25 million to 40 million, we will have regained our lost market share and created 700,000 new jobs and $60 billion in exports.

QWhat steps can be taken to attract the foreign visitor?

AWe want to address the visa process and the border experience. We want to focus on Brazil, China and India and add officers to speed up visa times. The officers more than pay for themselves in fee income. We want to add more consular offices in key cities. This is self-funding. There is no need for money from Congress. Nothing we have proposed will have a negative impact on security.

QWhere does security enter the picture?

ASecurity is a big concern. We understand that. But if the economy is in the tank, that threatens national security in a sense. And when people come here and love what they see, that is helpful to our diplomacy. It's not just jobs and exports, it's good for our stature.

QAny early results to report?

AThe number of visits from China is up 40 percent. The number from Brazil is also skyrocketing. Hundreds of millions of people are becoming part of the middle class, and the one thing they want to do is travel. It's like the Japanese 20 years ago.

QDoes the United States need to rethink its approach to marketing to potential tourists?

ASen. Amy Klobuchar [D-Minn.] sponsored the Travel Promotion Act that established Brand USA. Unlike other countries, we don't have a ministry of tourism. We don't promote ourselves as a destination. The Caribbean Islands spend tens of millions promoting their islands as destinations. It's not a bad idea to market our assets. There's a perception gap that we are difficult and more focused on terrorism than tourism. In 2012 we will be advertising in emerging countries.

David Phelps • 612-673-7269

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  • Hubert Joly

    Saturday May 26, 2012

    Age: 53

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