Art Works Blog

Coming to (Arts + Cultural) America

By Robert L. Lynch, President & CEO of Americans for the Arts

Robert L. Lynch. Photo courtesy of Americans for the Arts

It’s August in America: vacation time for many. Visitors from every part of the world are here, and once they get through customs, check into a hotel, and find something to eat, they look to experience America through our art galleries, museums, theaters, festivals, concerts, and arts offerings in every corner of our country. Cultural tourism! Obvious, right? Well, the arts still need to do a lot of great storytelling to actually make it so clear.

The good news is 2012 has been a big year for bringing attention to the economic impact of cultural tourism.

In January, a national Task Force on Travel & Competitiveness was set up through a Presidential Executive Order that called for a national strategy to be presented within 90 days. President Obama announced the Executive Order at a visit to one of the most popular tourist sites in the world, Main Street USA in Disneyworld.

That same day in Orlando, Florida, a new slate of members of the U.S. Travel & Tourism Advisory Board (TTAB) was sworn in by then-Commerce Secretary John Bryson, of which I was one. After joining, and subsequently being asked to Vice-Chair the Advocacy Subcommittee, I started thinking about how we can actively promote cultural tourism as part of a larger strategy---and where local arts organizations come in to do just that.

Among the TTAB recommendations that relate to the arts and culture were the inclusion of the arts as an objective to attracting tourists to secondary markets throughout the country, how an “authentic” experience is critical to a quality experience, and the need to include local tourism partners, such as city agencies and destination marketing organizations as partners with the federal government. But to my mind, we needed more than that: and what we at Americans for the Arts are currently working on with the subcommittee involves a larger communications plan that will help us all to tell the story of the arts in our communities in a broad and accessible way.

There are a lot of people we need to reach. In fact, the national strategy was released in late May in coordination with National Travel and Tourism Week, and it stated that last year, 62 million international tourists visited the United States and pumped a record $153 billion into local economies, helping to support the 7.6 million jobs in our travel and tourism industry. These numbers make tourism America’s number one service export. My goal through my work with TTAB is to help these people find the unique cultural sites that make America exciting and special to visit, and I believe that this will only boost our tourism to greater heights. The strategy sets a goal of drawing 100 million international visitors, which is expected to generate $250 billion annually in visitor spending, by 2021. The strategy also encourages more Americans to travel within all parts of the United States.

A month after the strategy was published, Americans for the Arts released our fourth Arts & Economic Prosperity study, which measures the impact of our national nonprofit arts and culture industry. Our study confirmed that as communities compete for a tourist’s dollar, arts and culture travelers spend more than other travelers, are more likely to stay in overnight lodging, spend $1,000 or more during their stay, and travel longer than other travelers. According to the Commerce Department, there has been steady growth in the percentage of tourists who fly to the U.S. and attend arts activities as part of their visit. So how do we capture this audience and capitalize on what is clearly already a huge driver of this pivotal industry?

The national tourism strategy includes four items that should be of interest to cultural tourism leaders, and might act as a guide to help better utilize the opportunity cultural tourism presents:

1) It recognizes that, “A significant number of international travelers seek out nature- and culture-based experiences, such as visiting historic sites (40 percent of overseas travelers), cultural sites (23 percent) and national parks (20 percent). Popular culture---including music, film, and television, and theme park experiences---is also a significant selling point.”

2) The report includes a recommendation for federal agencies to partner with, and provide grants and technical assistance to, local governments in order to attract and serve additional visitors. This would be in conjunction with Brand USA, the initiative responsible for promoting American destinations around the world. Brand USA recently launched the first global campaign with a song “Land of Dreams,” by Roseanne Cash. The connected television ads include significant profile arts and cultural activities in its narrative:

"Land of Dreams" written by Rosanne Cash and John Leventhal and performed by Rosanne Cash with guest artists Los Lobos, Bebel and TREME.

3) There is a recommendation to create a national travel and tourism office at the U.S. Department of Commerce;

4) The report calls for annual summits on travel and tourism to foster communication between federal agencies and tourism leaders.

What’s next?

Last week I attended the White House Business Council Forum on Travel and Tourism. At that event I was pleased that we were able to discuss the value-added of cultural tourism and the arts industry, amidst the many other tourism issues at the table. Being at the table is key, as my fellow US TTAB member and cultural advocate, Linda Carlisle, Secretary of North Carolina Department of Cultural Resources, can attest, whether at the national, state, or local levels.

It is important to remember that cultural tourism is not just for our major cities and largest national resources. It takes every state, every city, every village, every historic house or farm or theater to make up the richness and diversity of the cultural fabric of America. It is this heritage that we want to celebrate and share with the rest of the world. We are filled with every kind of cultural experience, but we need to get the word out there, and, in true American fashion, beyond our differences, we need to be telling the same story in order to be heard.

Robert L. Lynch is president and CEO of Americans for the Arts. With more than 30 years of experience in the arts industry, he is motivated by his personal mission to empower communities and leaders to advance the arts in society, and in the lives of our citizens.

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