Visit America Pageant

Tom Swick: Contemplating and celebrating the world of travel

05.28.09 | 11:30 AM ET

Photo by Tom Swick

“Miami makes me feel ...” read the top of the board in the media room.

“Hornie,” wrote one of the first foreign journalists to see it.

But Miami was not the focus of the U. S. Travel Association’s 41st annual Pow Wow last week—just the setting. And while the host city kicked off the four-day gathering with a beach party Sunday evening, and brought it to a close with a three-ring gala at the downtown arts center, there was—interspersed with assorted other parties—real work being done. The work of making America attractive to foreign tourists.

“We have one of the few cultures in the U.S.,” Keith Mangum of Texas Tourism explained, as if I were someone who didn’t know how to spell horny. He was standing in the Lone Star section of the Miami Beach Convention Center which, appropriately, took up a lot of space. The aisle of Texas.

“In Texas the Western culture is still a lifestyle,” Magnum said, “it still exists.” And to bring outsiders to that culture, I learned, Texas Tourism has offices in London, Paris, Munich, Tokyo and Mexico City. He noted that Big Bend National Park has the second-largest canyon in the U.S., which I found impressive if only because I couldn’t remember ever hearing a Texan brag about being outsized. Speaking of which, over at Alaska, Sharon Gaiptman told me that Wasilla backwards is “all I saw.”

California, New York and Florida each had Texas and Alaska beat in square footage, but, as in travel, I was drawn to the small and overlooked. At Iowa—three women occupying a single booth—Sara Clausen told of the state’s 200 vineyards. Michael Collins at Nebraska spoke of counties where cows outnumber people, a concept that has to be attractive to residents of places like Hong Kong and São Paulo.

Arriving at New Jersey, I asked about the daunting challenge of attracting foreigners (or anyone for that matter) with New York next door. Phyllis Oppenheimer confidently uttered two names: Frank Sinatra and Bruce Springsteen. (Jersey boys writ large.) “There’s a lot of interest in the pop music culture,” she said, adding that the Stone Pony in Asbury Park is still in operation. Traditionally, she said, the state’s tourists have come from Israel, Germany and the U.K., but this year the Dutch seemed particularly intrigued.

Sandy Gadzia, over at Pennsylvania, was still bemused by the morning visit of a travel agent from Mexico City who told her that, in Mexico, the most popular NFL team is the Pittsburgh Steelers. When the man said he wanted to bring a group up in the fall to see a game, Gadzia told him she would arrange a tailgate party for them. “He didn’t know about tailgating,” she said. “But he had his own Terrible Towel.”

I walked past airlines, hotels, rental car companies, the American Bus Association, Sawgrass Mills (“The World’s Largest Outlet Mall”), Madame Tussauds, Graceland (“Where Elvis Lives”), Hard Rock Café, Planet Hollywood, Ride the Ducks (“Quacktastic Fun for Groups”), Blue Man Group. This last booth took me by surprise, and I wondered how long until they get a blimp.

Las Vegas was well-represented—and decorated, its aisle lined with the famous “Welcome to Fabulous Las Vegas Nevada” signs. Reene Ho-Phang stood next to a table centerpieced by an even smaller sign and wore on her lapel a pin of the sign, complete with blinking colored lights.

“This year is the 50th anniversary of the sign,” Ho-Phang told me. She was from Shanghai, and knew more Vegas history than I did because her job was to bring Chinese tourists there. The first “leisure group”—as opposed to business travelers—from China visited the city in July of 2008, a fairly recent event Ho-Phang described as “a milestone.” The lights of her lapel pin danced in agreement.

Nearby, a woman in a wedding dress stood in front of the Chapel of the Flowers booth, and two men sat in the Lance Burton Master Magician booth, though neither of them was Lance Burton. Hawaii was lush with people in leis.

Lunch was served in an unclaimed exhibition hall acred with tables. Commerce Secretary Gary Locke spoke, predicting an 8 percent decline in international travel to the U.S. this year, and a soft recovery by the end of 2010. Then USTA president Roger Dow showed clips of tourism industry workers—a bell captain, a banquet associate—talking about their jobs and the importance of tourism to their livelihoods. (Next to each plate was a ballot so we could vote for one to be the “Face of Travel.”) This was followed by the popular YouTube video of street musicians from around the globe singing and playing “Stand by Me.”

“It’s what you do every day,” Dow told the assembled crowd when the song had concluded. “You bring the world together.”

It was one of those statements that sound corny, pompous and moving all at once, but I found myself somehow leaning toward the last. For the people around me, travel was a business; for most everyone else, it is a pleasure (or a dream); but for all of us it does—or at least can—have a higher purpose, a deeper meaning. A few hours later, entering a hotel on Collins Avenue, I looked the doorman in the eye.

Tom Swick

Tom Swick is the author of two books: a travel memoir, Unquiet Days: At Home in Poland, and a collection of travel stories, A Way to See the World: From Texas to Transylvania with a Maverick Traveler. He was the travel editor of the South Florida Sun-Sentinel for 19 years, and his work has been included in "The Best American Travel Writing" 2001, 2002, 2004 and 2008.

3 Comments for Visit America Pageant

Jennifer 05.28.09 | 12:17 PM ET

What better thing to draw foreign tourists to the states than to parade skantily clad women around with the Travel Association’s welcome sign!!!  The US wouldn’t want to disappoint the rest of the world by making them think there are people in this country that look different than the ones they see on television!  I’m no feminist, but I thought that image was about as cliche as it gets!  I guess in times like this you have to do what you have to do to draw tourists, but still, something tells me the story would be the same even without a recession!

Lindsay 05.28.09 | 5:24 PM ET

I agree with Jennifer…thats the first thing that came to mind. Visit America, we have lots of half naked women waiting for YOU! Oh, and we also have, Sawgrass Mills (“The World’s Largest Outlet Mall”), Madame Tussauds, Graceland (“Where Elvis Lives”), Hard Rock Café,  Planet Hollywood, Ride the Ducks (“Quacktastic Fun for Groups”), Blue Man Group. *gag* Im suddenly embarassed.

I do like the article though.

Terry Ward 05.29.09 | 5:21 AM ET

Love this post, Tom. Felt like I was there cruising the aisles with you. Your opening cracked me up. And who knew the Dutch were flocking to Jersey?

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