The other day, I had to go to the US Embassy here in Paris. In the waiting area, something caught my eye: a flat screen TV mounted on the wall was playing montages of each state. As I watched, I found myself actually wanting to go to Maine (nothing against The Pine Tree State – I just had never particularly thought about going there) and thinking how much I missed heading to Florida for vacation.
The role of an embassy is, among other things, to represent its country, so maybe this kind of thing is typical. But something about it felt…salesy. When I got back home, I did some research and wasn’t surprised to find out that the US has indeed started to advertise itself abroad. In 2010, after US tourist industry experts had noticed a decline in potential visitors over the past decade, the Travel Promotion Act was voted into law. May 2012 saw the launch of Brand USA, a privately- and publicly –funded corporation that promotes tourism to the US overseas.
When you think about it, it’s not hard to see why less people have wanted to go to the US lately: since 9/11, our security has grown tighter, and our worldview often seems unwelcoming to outsiders. And yet, The New York Times reports that the number of visitors to the US actually rose in the first decade of the 2000’s. What’s worrying tourism experts is the fact that people are increasingly traveling in general, though, and more and more seem to be choosing countries other than the United States as their destination.
In fact, this fascinating article from The Atlantic’s Michael Scaturro reveals that there seems to be a sort of battle going on between different countries thirsting after tourist money. While the US has had to “re-brand” itself to show that it welcomes foreign visitors (all while making them fill out security forms before even setting foot here – and, hilariously, using the fees charged for processing these forms to fund more tourism ads!), other nations have also worked hard to change the way they’re seen by the world. For example, countries with troubled or fairly unknown images, both South Africa and Brazil have used their roles as recent World Cup hosts as another way to market themselves.
In the past, America has never felt the need to advertise itself – and that in and of itself makes our status as the second most-visited country in the world impressive. So, some people might wonder, why bother now? Well, the stakes are high. Travelers to the US spent about $179 billion in 2013 alone; tourism makes up 3% of America’s GDP. Tourism is becoming an increasingly lucrative business — and other countries haven’t been shy about putting themselves out there, reaping the financial benefits.
What’s funny is, that while “country-branding expert” Tom Buncle discusses the challenge of marketing different states and really giving an overall picture of the US, it seems like the ads are exactly what I would have expected: joyful images of people gathered in iconic sites, impressive landscapes, activities like horseback riding, famous food. The video I saw (which may not have been created as a part of this initiative) was shot with such energy and so attractively, though, that I couldn’t help but look forward to my next trip back to the US. In another ad campaign, called “Discover America, Land of Dreams”, images of diversity are featured, “including…two smiling Muslim women strutting down a Manhattan street, [and] a man of Asian descent riding a Harley-Davidson through a redwood forest.”
The ads seem to be working: according to Scaturro, BrandUSA has happily reported an increase in people planning to travel to America. But the US still has a long way to go. Quoted in the same article, UN tourism expert John Kester concedes that there are still some markets, notably the Middle East, that will be a lot tougher to win over.