COLUMBIA, SC — When you think about what tugs at your heart strings on Valentine’s Day, traveling together may not be the first thing that comes to mind.
Maybe it should be.
Americans, and South Carolinians in particular, tend to sell short the value and the intrigue of travel, a Columbia tourism expert says.
It is evidenced as much by Americans’ general reluctance to get out and explore the wonders of the world, says USC tourism specialist Simon Hudson, as by South Carolinians’ failure to appreciate how much people of other cultures want to visit the Palmetto State.
“In travel, tourism is the fastest-growing industry in the world, one of the largest in the world, but we in North America are not really capitalizing on it,” said Hudson, USC SmartState endowed chairman in tourism and economic development.
“Our tourism has been pretty flat for the past 10-12 years, as a nation and in South Carolina. We do well, but I don’t think we really fulfill our potential.”
That premise will be the subject of an open, public discussion at this month’s episode of the Science Cafe. Hosted by EngenuitySC each second Tuesday at 6 p.m. at the Speakeasy bar in Five Points, Science Cafe is an open discussion featuring networking, a cash bar, and free, informal presentations by some of South Carolina’s top leaders in science and technology, in a casual atmosphere.
Hudson will lead the discussion on travel and other related premises based on the consumer trends he studies at the USC Center of Excellence, and the research he undertakes as the center’s director.
Some of the center’s primary research, for instance, is focused on health and wellness, Hudson said, and how travel is important to your health – and to romance.
“One of the strands of the health effects (of travel) is the romance,” Hudson said. “So far, we know that 40-odd percent of couples feel more romantic on holiday. Seventy percent of couples come back saying they feel more in love. Thirty-five percent have more sex when they are on holiday.”
“We know from research that it’s good for family bonding – that it’s good for connections,” Hudson said, “so the U.S. Travel Association is trying to push that through to the consumer to get them to travel more.”
Part of Hudson’s job is to work with various parts of the state to capitalize on their natural attractions, history, location, topography and people to produce lasting tourism attractions that draw people from across the globe.
The center draws upon science, technology and innovation to identify and incubate if necessary the seedlings for tourism attractions.
In Lake City, for instance, the home town of USC alumnus and philanthropist Darla Moore and NASA astronaut Ron McNair, culinary attractions are being considered for the town’s Main Street area.
In Aiken, an old winter colony for wealthy horse trainers from the North, feasibility studies are under consideration to develop a $130 million horse park.
The African-American tourism experience available in the state is unique, he noted, and holds vast interest to visitors.
“We’re not the best travelers,” Hudson said. “Only 25 percent of Americans have passports.” While Hudson may be correct, even facts sometimes inspire debate and discussion.
“One of the things about the Science Cafe is that you can come out and have a beer, have a glass of wine, have a little bit of fun with the speaker and engage and interact,” said Frank Avery, EngenuitySC project coordinator.
“You walk in, we welcome everybody. You can ask any question; you will not be judged for any question you ask. You can challenge the speaker on what their views are, no matter whether you have expertise or not,” Avery said. “The whole point is we’re holding them accountable for their innovation.”
President Obama has been good for the U.S. tourism industry, Hudson said. He came in and passed the Travel Promotion Act of 2009.
Signed in March 2010, the act established the Corporation for Travel Promotion, role of which is to communicate U.S. entry policies and to promote leisure, business and scholarly travel to the United States.
The first U.S. Travel Promotion program, it was expected to create 40,000 jobs and boost inbound travel to the U.S. The program assesses a $10 fee on foreign travelers to the U.S. who enter from visa waiver countries, meaning they do not have to pay the $131 fee normally required to enter. The fees, which are matched by private sector contributions up to $100 million, goes into a pot to sell America, Hudson said.
“It’s the first time ever that we’ve sold America as a country,” said Hudson, who is originally from England.
Part of that initiative, announced just last week, Hudson said, is called The Travel Effect, designed to push the importance of travel to Americans.
While the program is new to the U.S., it is old-hat elsewhere, such as in Australia where their “No Leave, No Life” initiative has been underway for three years, according to Hudson, who spent several years working in the tourism industry in Europe.
Hudson held positions at universities in Canada and England, and worked as a visiting professor in Austria, Switzerland, Spain, Fiji, New Zealand, the United States and Australia.
If you haven’t seen them already, look soon for more television commercials and billboards pushing the romance of Valentine’s Day and the romance of travel, Hudson urged.
Hotel chains such as the Hilton have undertaken their own pro-travel campaigns and even some American employers are crafting “pro-vacation” packages for their work force, Hudson said, recognizing that their employees “are burnt-out and that they need more vacation.”
“So, America is just really catching up with what the Australians have been doing for years, and just saying, ‘Hey, let’s persuade people to take more travel,’” Hudson said.
“There’s nothing wrong with a strong work ethic,” Hudson said. “But I work to live. I’m always planning my next vacation. That’s my life. And yet, people here feel guilty when they take a vacation.”