J.W. (Bill) Marriott, Jr., chairman and CEO of Marriott International said in a speech last week that the U.S. government should focus more attention on reducing barriers to travel around the world, especially to the U.S., and also promote the country worldwide as a travel destination.

In remarks while accepting a corporate social responsibility award from the Foreign Policy Association in New York last Thursday, Marriott said he well understood the imperative of secure borders. "I only have to look back to the moment I watched the stricken Twin Towers reduce our World Trade Center hotel to a hole in the ground to say that with conviction," he said.

But Marriott added that while the global travel industry has grown about 30 percent over the past 10 years, in part led by "emerging middle classes in China, India, and Eastern Europe," the U.S. share of world travel has shrunk from 9 to 6 percent. Marriott said this trend was particularly concerning, given the relative strength of some currencies to the dollar that gives many international visitors more buying power in the U.S.

"Oddly, we are one of the few developed countries that does not have a minister of tourism, whose sole responsibility is to draw more people and more travel dollars to our country," he said. Noting that Iceland spends more on travel promotion than does the U.S. federal government, Marriott said the U.S. Department of Commerce will spend less than $10 million this year marketing the U.S., and that Congress has authorized no such funds in 2007. He said Australia spends $120 million annually in tourism promotion and is now the most desired destination, while the U.S. has fallen to sixth favorite.

U.S. visa policy also needs retooling, said Marriott, who pointed out that U.S. regulations require many potential visitors to travel long distances to one of few U.S. consulates and wait for interviews and processing before being granted visas for travel to the United States. For example, in Brazil, he said, the average waiting time for an interview is 55 days. In 2000, 737,000 Brazilians traveled to the U.S.; last year, only 485,000 came, Marriott said.

In 2000, Brazilians spent more than $2.2 billion in the U.S.; by 2004, that had dropped 40 percent to $1.3 billion. While security procedures are important, said Marriott, the current system "is fast becoming a barrier to our travel trade, hurting our economy by keeping more reals, euros, and rupees from being spent here. Travel is trade, just like when we export a pair of jeans, a jet aircraft or a tractor."