AMERICA'S tourism-industry leaders are dusting off welcome mats, brushing up foreign-language skills, and preparing a national initiative this spring to shore up the United States' declining share of world tourism dollars.
The industry-funded initiative, announced last week, will include a multilingual toll-free number for foreign travelers to call in an emergency and a public-private national tourism office to replace the government-run tourist office that will close April 15 because of budget cuts.
In 1995, the US attracted 15.7 percent of world tourism receipts, down from 18.7 percent in 1993. The US Travel and Tourism Administration (USTTA) and World Tourism Organization project a further decline, to 13.8 percent, by 2000.
At stake is the $78-billion foreign-tourist component of America's $430 billion-a-year tourist industry. A WTO report in January points to France as the most popular tourist destination, followed by Spain. The US has dropped to the third most popular tourist destination from its No. 2 slot last year.
Other aspects of the new national tourism strategy include:
Putting on a friendlier face. The American Society of Travel Agents will work with the US Customs office and the Immigration and Naturalization Service to expand language skills and training for border inspectors by next January. Specially trained greeters will be stationed at international airports to help travelers.
Education. The American Hotel & Motel Association will develop an education curriculum by the year 2000 on careers in tourism for use in public schools from kindergarten through college.
Vision for the future. By next January, a public/private policy group called the President's Council on Travel and Tourism will be formed to advise the President, Congress, and industry on tourism issues.
The soon-to-close USTTA's yearly budget of $16.3 million is paltry compared with what other countries spend on marketing, industry leaders say. In 1992, when Spain hosted the Summer Olympic Games in Barcelona, it spent $100 million on tourism. Canada, which runs a public/private tourist office, now spends $80 million on tourism promotion.
National-promotion efforts have been hampered because of the industry's large size and diversity. But last October, 1,700 US tourism leaders - rental-car agency operators, airline presidents, hotel owners and more - gathered in Washington at the first-ever White House Conference on Travel and Tourism to begin developing a new strategy.
MORE countries than ever are aggressively marketing themselves. "The competition is getting tougher every day," said Under Secretary of Commerce for Travel and Tourism Greg Farmer last week. "You can pick up any trade magazine or go to any travel agency ... and you'll see advertisements for destinations you never dreamed of - everything from Vietnam to El Salvador."
Once the USTTA closes, a privately funded interim organization will open immediately and operate for one year. Meanwhile, Congress will establish the framework for a new public/private national tourism agency to take over from the interim one by April 1997.
Safety remains a key concern among foreign tourists, say industry leaders. In 1993, Florida's image was damaged by a series of tourist slayings and robberies. Things had been quiet since then until a Dutch tourist was fatally shot in Miami February and a Canadian tourist was murdered in Daytona Beach last month.
But some in the industry are cautious about the idea of the safety hotline.
"I don't know if an 800 number is the answer," says Nicki Grossman, president of the Greater Fort Lauderdale Convention and Visitors Bureau. "I think the earnest effort to reduce crime is what people are going to judge us by."