Tom Garzilli, chief marketing officer, Brand USA, believes that Donald Trump’s remarks about Muslims have made no impact on tourism as the sector continues seeing a growth when it comes to inflows from South Asia.
We caught up with Garzilli to learn more about ‘Brand USA’ and what is being done to promote tourism in India and other South Asian markets.
Which are the countries contributing most to tourist inflows to USA? Where does India figure?
India is currently the 11th largest market for tourism to the US. Currently we get about 1.2 million tourists annually from India. We expect that to go to about 1.8 million over the next three years. It’s a very vibrant market and an important one for us.
Not surprisingly, the top two currently are Canada and Mexico. They represent about 45 per cent of all tourists.
Among overseas markets we’re seeing a huge inflow from UK, Japan and China. European countries are also part of the top 10. Australia is currently at number 10 but in the next couple of years we’re expecting India to replace the country.
What’s the growth trend with tourists coming in from India?
The growth from India has been steady. The rate has been pretty close to global tourism’s growth rate. The US gets a very good share of that growth.
Countries like India especially have a good growth rate because of a common language. Things like Bollywood films (shot here) and a lot of interest in American culture has fuelled growth.
Air fleets have become more available too and that’s further helped growth.
Are we seeing people from the tier two and three cities from India also travelling?
They are primarily coming from the main capital cities. It’s all about the air service and the ease to get where you want to go.
Of course, over time as we get more engaged in the country and start to get more deeply-rooted; we’ll start moving out to (target) secondary cities.
India is a big country, and the main cities have a huge population who want to travel. It takes a long time to build an infrastructure to target all the cities in a country like India.
We're seeing ‘newer destinations’ come up in Europe for Indians to travel to. Would that be worrying? What would Brand USA do for the same?
As Indians begin the experience of travelling, it’s not unnatural to start closer and work further away. As the audience engages in travel, more and more people start turning towards America for the diversity of the experience.
Then there’s the aspect of people growing up with our music, movies etc. It’s always an aspirational experience. People may go nearby this year, but it’s always on the bucket list of an Indian to travel to America. It’s our job to make it a reality for them.
We have offices in India and do training in the trade and build products with partners to give consumers an easier path to come here. We also spend time inspiring and motivating people to want to come here. We focus primarily on inspiring and storytelling. We let the trade, airlines and tour operators sell the travel. Our job really is to inspire and educate.
Our new film is a great example of what we do and how we do it. When you think about the breadth of the country in terms of geography, experiences, cities, great outdoors, there are so many stories to tell. One of the ways we have done that is through the universal language of music. A telling story of how the country is shaped by how people have come in to the country with their culture.
This film is narrated by Morgan Freeman and is a 40-minute documentary made for the giant screen and will be shown in four cities in India. This is our second film that looks to promote tourism. The first one was ‘National Park Adventure’ which is actually still being shown in three cities in India.
This new film ‘America’s Musical Journey’ will be out next month. We know we will inspire people to want to come. That’s the primary storytelling tool for us.
We are also launching a streaming television channel, ‘Go USA TV’. It’s meant to do the same thing for individuals to get an intimate, close experience for everything you can do from music to food to culture. That’s the theme of what we do to get people interested to coming here.
We're seeing airlines like Emirates, Etihad, Turkish and Lufthansa among others pushing travel to their respective countries. USA doesn't seem to have an airline pushing that in India. Is that a disadvantage?
That is something that is coming. It’s definitely one of the challenges we have when it comes to growing tourism from India.
There’s far more demand from people wanting to come here than the fleet available for them.
The airlines you mentioned are bringing in people through their respective hubs to America. We work with those airlines. Many of them have built their own infrastructure and hubs to promote tourism and that’s fine. We work a lot with Air Canada that flies more people to the US through Canada than American airlines in some markets!
There are lot of ways of bring people in to the country. As India grows in size, airlines will follow the passengers and there will be a growth in American and global carriers to bring Indians directly here.
With all the controversies around Muslims, there's an obvious perception of them not being welcome in the country. Has travel from the Muslim community in South Asia dipped?
I don’t want to understate how people feel or may feel. But what I would say is that it doesn’t tend to be an influencer. What we have seen is that travel, tourism and cultural messages transcend the politics and political messages. When you’re dreaming of taking your vacation wherever it is, you’re focusing on what the experience it will be.
I think what is universally accepted about America regardless of any political landscape is that it’s a free, diverse place.
Are we seeing growth of tourism from the other countries in South Asia – Pakistan, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka?
We as Brand USA are focused on the top 14-15 countries. But, the trend globally that travel continues to increase. There isn’t really a country where global travel is down. There are some countries because of currency going somewhere else and may slow down, but we’re seeing global travel growing.
But don’t you think it would have made people from the community look elsewhere for a holiday?
We are just not seeing that. In reality nothing has changed in terms of the ability of people to come here to get into the country to visit. The airports have become very welcoming and the process of getting into the country is much better. That’s not to say, that there are people who are not very engaged in some of the political messaging but that is transcended by the will to experience the country.
I think they make a distinction between Americans and the message they’re getting from the politics. And I think that’s true not just in America. It’s true around the world. In the end wherever you want to go, you focus on what your experience is going to be.
There are other basic issues like currencies which may change patterns of tourism.
You spoke about Bollywood attracting tourists from India. How big is film tourism? How is it growing?
One of the things we are doing in addition to big films and television tourism is the addition of influencers. We invite a lot of individuals who have a point of view or story to tell. It’s all about authentic storytelling. We want people who have interests like other consumers and make them experience. We are moving away from say traditional media and messaging to much more close to the market, influencer based authentic storytelling. It helps us develop interesting stories.
We can’t tell the story of the country through one or two films. There are hundreds and hundreds of stories. One of the reasons we did this channel (Go USA TV) is because we wanted a place that people can go and have hundreds of hours of content for them to consume at their convenience to learn about the things to do and places to go.
Are we seeing a drop in the number of students applying to the USA universities?
It continues to grow and from our perspective of growing long term, that is a hugely valuable segment. We see students coming and falling in love with the country and they certainly want to come back. But while they’re here, their family and friends keep coming. One experience leads to the next. The families of students and the students themselves tend to be very frequent visitors. They’re the ones that get beyond the cities they’re in.
It’s a great way over time to get our message out.
We’re seeing an emergence of countries in Europe, South East Asia and Australia attract students too. They believe in higher job security in these markets. Is that right?
I can’t really speak on what’s happening in that landscape. I live in DC and within walking distance are two huge universities. I can say that the diversity of the student body is amazing. That’s what makes the universities great and brings global interest.
I think students from India and China are on the rise and that’s a good thing not only for tourism but also for our country.
There's a trend of Indians travelling abroad for big ticket sports tournaments. USA doesn't have one that entices Indians. Does that hurt tourism?
I would call it an opportunity. We are looking at various sports and expand out internationally. Over time, things like American football and baseball will grow interest internationally.
Anything Americana that can be showcased in India can be great for us.
Within the USA, would New York be the favourite destinations for South Asians to visit? What would be a number two or three?
New York is number one right now. But we are now seeing that expand. That’s helped visitors across the country. A big part of our mission is to get visitors not just into primary markets but to get them beyond them to see the country. It’s not about spreading our economic income but showing a great value for visitors too.