08/29/2012 07:52 am ET

Presidential Candidates Largely Ignore Travel Industry Despite Job And Economic Growth Potential


In January 2011, President Obama issued a directive encouraging certain types of visits to Cuba and prompting tour companies to hurriedly submit applications for the new licenses required to operate these "people-to-people" educational trips. Senator Marco Rubio, who is scheduled to address the Republican National Convention on Thursday night, reacted differently to the directive, taking to the Senate floor to decry the trips.

"This is tourism for Americans that at best are curious about Cuba and at worst sympathize with the Cuban regime," Rubio claimed. This sarcastic Senatorial rant was soon followed -- coincidentally or not -- by a slow down in processing of tour licenses by the Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC), which administers the program. At least one tour operator, who asked not be in named for fear of retaliation from federal officials, told Huffington Post Travel that his company has laid off an astonishing 80 percent of its workforce as a result of the paperwork backups.

Even as Marco Rubio and the RNC praise job creators, some Americans who have created tourism jobs are having hard discussions with their employees or feeling left out of the broader economic discussion. Despite talk on both sides of the aisle about the need to spark economic growth, the expanding, job-intensive hospitality industry has hardly felt the love in Washington. To the contrary, tourism professionals are finding that some job creators are apparently more equal than others.

"There's not a single person I wouldn't bring back tomorrow," if travel licenses were renewed, the tour operator said of his former employees, adding that he's afraid to lose their expertise.

John Sullivan, Treasury Department spokesman, says the people-to-people program isn't being put on hold. "We're running through dozens and dozens of applications and renewals. We have not denied any of these [licenses]," he says.

Sullivan says that OFAC is simply suffering from a paperwork backup and has a continued interest in supporting people-to-people trips despite a change in policy this May that has put additional burdens on tour operators.

"We revised the license application criteria to stress to applicants the seriousness of the requirements of the people-to-people licensing program," says Jeff Braunger, program manager for Cuba Travel Licensing, in an email to HuffPost Travel. "In part because of reports we received concerning travel under the licenses."

"We have issued approximately 140 people-to-people licenses," Braunger continues. "We are doing our best to process both first-time applications and requests to renew existing licenses."

Sullivan has cold comfort for companies trying to schedule and sell trips to Cuba. "I can't really get into numbers on renewals that are forthcoming."

Candidates Ignore Easy Solutions

Beyond the Cuba debate, in which small businesses are facing impossibly high regulatory hurdles to conduct legal (if politicized) business, travel and tourism remains one of the largest drivers of economic activity in the U.S. But conventioneers on the national stage continue to ignore the opportunities that travel presents for both job creation and economic growth.

The U.S. Department of Commerce’s International Trade Administration announced earlier this month that 2012 could be a record year for travel and tourism, with international visitors to the U.S. having spent $82.2 billion on travel so far this year, a bump of 11 percent over 2011.

Add in domestic travelers, and the U.S. Travel Association says that tourism generated $813 billion of economic impact in 2011, supporting 7.5 million jobs directly and 6.9 million more in associated industries.

But with all that money on the table, the candidates have been slow to act.

Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney's "Plan for Jobs and Economic Growth" uses the word "jobs" 250 times, adding that "as the U.S. economy has become more infused with technology and automation, the demand for skilled workers has grown." Yet the policy paper uses the word "travel" exactly once -- in reference to President Obama's visit to Brazil. The word "tourism" doesn't appear at all. The candidate has also suggested cutting Amtrak's entire $1.5 billion annual federal subsidy, despite record-high ridership on the rail line.

That Romney ignores tourism, which in economic terms acts as an export, is particularly surprising given his stated affinity for increasing American exports in the very same policy paper: "For every additional $1 billion in U.S. exports, another 5,000 jobs are created in the United States. The fewer the barriers to cross-border commerce, the more economic growth we enjoy and the greater the number of American jobs brought into being."

President Obama has similarly taken a very cautious tack on tourism. After announcing a new focus on international visitors at an appearance at Walt Disney World in January, administration officials waited until May to announce further specifics. In that release, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar was quoted as saying "tourism -- especially international tourism -- holds the promise of being an economic engine for the country,” but officials set a rather modest goal of attracting 100 million international tourists by 2021.

Insiders say the policy fix for the jobs problem is surprisingly simple: Get out of the travel industry's way.

"The U.S. government doesn't need to do much when it comes to creating travel/tourism jobs," says Rafat Ali, co-founder of travel industry site, in an email to HuffPost Travel. "It just has to keep out of the way. That would include easing visa policies for tourists looking to come to U.S. from growth regions like Latin America, Asia and others."

The chairman of the U.S. Travel Association also suggests that regulators step aside in a recent blog post on HuffPost Travel.

"It is time to explore more public-private partnerships and leverage private sector capital," wrote Rossi Ralenkotter, discussing the new terminal at McCarran International Airport in Las Vegas.

"The U.S. Travel Association estimated that Americans avoided making 41 million trips because of travel hassles," Ralenkotter continued. "Those avoided trips translate into $22 billion in missed revenue for airlines, hotels and restaurants as well as state and local governments. These lost opportunities impact entire communities and thousands of jobs."

Jobs -- and money on the table -- that both parties seem to have, so far, all but ignored.

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