07/29/2011 02:14 pm ET | Updated Sep 28, 2011

Want to Boost the U.S. Economy? Get Serious About Tourism

As we all think--with increasing urgency--about how to best stimulate growth and ramp up employment for the U.S. economy, we might just be missing a huge opportunity that is staring us in the face. Bill Marriott Jr., Chairman and CEO of Marriott International, made the point recently and with great clarity: Tourism creates jobs.

Right now, the tourism industry generates $134 billion in annual revenue and directly supports an estimated 1.8 million U.S. jobs. From retail to hotels to entertainment to restaurants, whether it's Liz Claiborne Inc., The Ritz Carlton or a Broadway Theater, we all depend on the purchasing power of tourists. So the question is: What's the best way to grow tourism in the U.S., a country with wonders from sea to shining sea?

The solution is one part getting our rules and regulations right, one part tapping into good old fashioned American razzmatazz, updated for the 21st century.

First, as Bill Marriott pointed out, the federal government needs to adjust its visa policies to make visiting the U.S. easier. If we don't, we stand to lose out big. According to a recent study, international travelers visiting the U.S. spend an average of $4,000 per person on hotels, restaurants, domestic travel, shopping, and entertainment. And travelers from certain regions spend even more. Tourists from Brazil, for example, spend more per capita than any other country, yet only four consular offices exist to approve Brazilian visas. Believe it or not, that means would-be tourists can wait over 140 days for their visa. Modifying this process will both open the floodgates for new visitors, and create thousands of jobs.

The second part of the solution is the razzmatazz, now called marketing. Each and every day, thanks to the lack of a vigorous "Visit America" campaign, our tourism industry is missing opportunities to nab travelers and increase share. Again, like a smart business, we need to focus on where the growth is. Namely, in China and South America, where there are increasing numbers of consumers with disposable income, e.g., potential tourists!

The good news is that the tools we need to reach and attract these visitors are already at our disposal, and, in fact, our "Visit America" campaign could be ramped up at relatively low cost. The European Travel Council, for example, recently ran a Facebook contest that encouraged travelers to post photos of themselves in locations throughout Europe. The winner received a free trip to one of three European destinations.

Or take VisitBritain, which enlisted internationally-known celebrities like Dev Patel, Judi Dench, and Jamie Oliver to create TV ads and short films (which were also disseminated online) as part of a £100 million campaign to attract younger Asian tourists. The U.K. is also leveraging key events, such as the Summer Olympics, using social media to further drive visitor interest.

A successful marketing strategy for the U.S. cannot rely on a "One Size Fits All" tactic - we are too big and too broad, with something for everyone. But that's also our competitive advantage - we have the ability to meet the needs of almost any visitor. Effective campaigns will have to understand the tastes and needs of each audience, whether Chinese, Brazilian, Indian or European--andcommunicate unique American experiences most likely to attract them.

We have one of the most beautiful, exciting and dynamic countries in the world, and we know targeted marketing through social and traditional media is an effective way to drive tourism. So what's stopping us? Now is the time. We could all use the boost.