From the majestic Gateway Arch to Branson, the Live Music Capital of the World, the Show-Me State has long been home to some of the Midwest’s most interesting tourist destinations, bringing in millions of visitors from across America. Yet, in the midst of the upcoming summer vacation season, how does our state fare when it comes to attracting visitors from outside of the United States? While foreign visitors are well aware of destinations like New York City, cities like St. Louis and Kansas City are often left out of the conversation.
In 2018, the travel guide Fodor’s even went so far as to call Missouri one of the top places to avoid visiting in the world. This kind of environment can have serious effects on the local economies across our state when you consider the fact that travel and tourism supports one in every nine American jobs and generates $2.5 trillion in economic output. Foreign travel contributes heavily to these figures, but much of it is concentrated in coastal hubs like Los Angeles or Washington, D.C. Losing out on these key demographics is leaving money on the table for hard-working Missourans employed by the travel and tourism industry.
Thankfully, there are many champions fighting to ensure Missouri’s rightful place at the top of anyone’s mind who is coming to see America. Local tourism boards like Visit KC and Explore St. Louis are working day in and day out to highlight the best of what our state has to offer, from burgeoning food scenes to world-class sports. These organizations are sometimes funded entirely by the public, using tax dollars to promote the city. However, in my opinion, the even better model to fund these kinds of programs is through a public-private partnership.
A public-private partnership combines public funding through tax revenue with private funding through stakeholders that care about the organization’s goal. In the case of Visit KC, they receive public funding through a hotel lodging tax in the city, as well as private funding from over 800 businesses in the region who benefit from increasing numbers of tourists. This model is mutually beneficial, as it ensures even healthier funding for the tourism board while generating an economic return for the member companies.
However, local tourism boards aren’t the only public-private partnerships supporting Missouri. One of the most successful public-private partnerships is called Brand USA and it functions to promote destinations like those across Missouri to the rest of the world. Yet, unlike some other public-private partnerships, Brand USA doesn’t even rely on funding from American taxpayers. Public funds for the program are collected from a fee that foreign visitors pay when they enter the country under the Visa Waiver Program.
Then, the allocation from that fee is matched by private companies and private-sector destination marketing organizations who benefit from the important work Brand USA does. The proof is in the pudding: since Fiscal Year 2013, Brand USA has delivered $47.7 billion in economic output and has created 52,000 American jobs. And since Brand USA focuses on leveling the promotional playing field for smaller and lesser-known destinations that are diamonds in the rough, those economic benefits are going to the folks on Main Street not Rodeo Drive.
Missouri has been the subject of many of Brand USA’s efforts, including the successful “Ask A Local” video seriesthat highlighted the music scene in Kansas City, the vibrant college town of Columbia, and scenic Southern Missouri, amongst other things. This is just one of the many reasons that Senator Roy Blunt and Senator Josh Hawley have been vocal about supporting Brand USA’s reauthorization when its public funding comes up in 2020. Both senators signed a letter that strongly supports protecting and renewing Brand USA’s current funding mechanism that doesn’t burden the taxpayer.
Essential programs like these that promote the real America deserve to be funded fully, and, in the case of Brand USA, reauthorized. Let’s hope that local tourism boards keep up the good work and, more importantly, that Senator Roy Blunt and Senator Josh Hawley continue to support the reauthorization of Brand USA. It would be a shame if we didn’t have champions like these looking out for Missouri.
Karan Pujji is a former candidate for state representative, a business owner and civic volunteer in St. Louis, Missouri.