One of the principal charges levied against Alaska Governor Sarah Palin during the presidential campaign was that she was clueless. But, although it may pain some people to acknowledge it, Alaska's economy was just saved from losing at least $4 million thanks to her quick advocacy.
Japan Airlines shuttles about 20 aircraft to Alaska each winter, each packed with 350 tourists eager to glimpse the Northern Lights. But this season, budget cutbacks at the U.S. Customs and Border Protection division prompted the government to deny the airline its landing rights. There weren't enough agents to meet the planes.
Palin, though, petitioned the Department of Homeland Security to reverse the decision, pointing out the flight stoppage would cost Fairbanks' economy at least $4 million, and the rest of the state even more, in lost revenue from the Japanese sightseers. The DHS relented, and the flights are back on.
The whole affair points up a major blind spot in our government's economic stimulus goals. Tourism is a win-win industry for America. It pours money into our economy. It employs a sector of our society that is more vulnerable to economic shifts. It boosts our image abroad. It costs very little in resources, as well. After all, the Grand Canyon and the Big Easy are open every day, anyway.
Tourism delivers huge boxes of cash, practically gift-wrapped, and you'd think that America's leaders would be a little more wise to its benefits and advocate increasing it wherever possible.
But no. Despite the fact that countless tiny countries have their own tourism bureaus which work to raise the awareness level of their own destinations abroad, the United States has no country-wide public relations organ, even in these times when our international P.R. image could use a buff.
Right now, it's up to random politicians to advocate for their personal slices of our tourism industry. There's no one overseeing a grand plan, and no welcoming face for visitors aside from the humorless fingerprinters of the Department of Homeland Security. There's also no policy for attracting business on a nationwide basis, which is silly when you consider that most foreign tourists visit several areas of the U.S. on the same trip.
If tourism is a huge blind spot for our national productivity, it's understandable, because Americans don't vacation like many foreigners do. We take the fewest vacation days in the industrialized world. In Germany, a country that's no slouch in terms of productivity, workers typically get seven weeks of vacation a year. They use those two months off to see the world, year after year, spending heaps of money abroad. The British typically get about six weeks, and even the Brazilians get about as much. You may be surprised to learn that Americans receive about half as much free time as even those hyper-industrious Japanese workers.
Many Americans with full-time jobs are lucky to get about two weeks of vacation a year, most of which we spend visiting family or friends in our far-flung country.
Instead of telling people to go shopping when times get hard, perhaps the president could lobby to give Americans some more vacation days, which they would naturally use to spend money around the country. If our leaders are not willing to push for that, at least they could create a national tourism office and generally stimulate the tourism industry in the same way the current White House boosts munitions manufacturers and the oil industry.
Palin's efforts are not much more than a case of a governor of a lightly populated state advocating for something that benefits her and her constituents. They don't benefit the country in general. But it wouldn't cost taxpayers very much to implement something that markets everyone's states. It's simply a matter of catching up with the times and doing more to claim our position in the global market.
Should America woo tourism? You betcha!