No doubt some in the travel and tourism industry were anticipating a speech last week by President Barack Obama eagerly. Those who expected a meaningful federal initiative on behalf of tourism were disappointed.
During a speech in Cooperstown, N.Y., Obama focused on tourism as a contributor to the U.S. economy. He was right to do so; travel and tourism contribute about $450 billion a year to the U.S. economy. About 5.4 million jobs rely on the industry.
But Obama went badly off track. The purpose of his speech was to announce a plan to make it easier for foreign visitors to get through U.S. airports.
Obama had an opportunity to boost the U.S. tourism industry, perhaps by targeting federal funding on highway expansion that will open new areas to recreational travelers. Instead, he chose to focus on visitors from abroad.
That may play well in the urban areas where the president's political base is centered. It will do little good for the vast majority of Americans and tourism destinations outside the cities.
International travelers contribute only about 20 percent of the dollars that flow into the U.S. economy from tourism. Again, the percentage is much lower outside big cities.
A better plan to boost the travel and tourism economy would be to focus on infrastructure such as highways. Corridor H in eastern West Virginia is an example. Redirecting federal spending to finish that highway before its 2035 scheduled completion date would be a realistic means of increasing tourism. No doubt other regions of the country have similar needs.
Making it easier for a foreign visitor to get through a U.S. airport may attract more tourists from abroad. But making it easier to get to inviting destinations within the U.S. would do much more good.