Remarks at the Global Business Conference on Travel and Tourism

Thomas Nides
Deputy Secretary for Management and Resources 
Washington, DC
October 2, 2012

This video is available on YouTube with closed captions.

Thank you, Michael. And I should tell you – I don’t just go to Mexico, although the weather was great there, and Cancun was perfect, so thank you for the invitation. Michael insisted on going with me, so I very much appreciate everyone’s here.

And I’m grateful all of you could show up, but I wanted to thank my friend Roger Dao who’s there. I just saw Roger, where’s Roger? Hey, Roger. I spent so much time with Roger, he’s – he told me he’s thinking about changing his political affiliation, which I appreciate (Laughter). I’m kidding, I’m just joking. But the – it is really with his leadership, to be honest, in cajoling us, pushing us, forcing us to do things that we knew we could do, with your leadership, I appreciate it and I’m honored that you are here, and all your colleagues.

I want also to thank you my friend Kathleen Matthews, who does actually have a day job, but because not only is she a successful executive at the Marriot corporation, as you know, she was also a TV star, so using her TV talents to help us moderate today. So again, Kathleen, thank you, you’re a great friend, and thank you for coming.

Friends and colleagues from the travel and tourism industry, and from across the U.S. Government, welcome to the first-ever Strategic Dialogue on International Travel. This is a great deal debate these days on how we create jobs, but it is beyond debate what brings us all here today. There is a simple equation which we all know: more secure, legitimate international travel to this country equals – guess what? – American jobs, and more economic growth. And the fact is all of you know, for every 65 international tourists who come to the United States, we create one American job. And ladies and gentlemen, there’s very few industries that can actually point to those statistics. And in a time when the American people are hungry for economic opportunity, this is a huge opportunity, and I am personally committed to seeing it through and seizing upon it.

And with the help from the White House – and you’ll hear from my friend Lisa in about a minute – and the leadership of Valerie Jarrett at the White House, who has grabbed onto this issue on behalf of the President, we are a whole-of-government approach to resolve and move this agenda forward. And the State Department is also proud of the role it’s playing. Through her economic statecraft agenda, Secretary Clinton, who you’ll have an opportunity to hear from later, has made sure that our diplomacy abroad supports economic revival at home.

Every day, our consular officers, our economic officers, and our public diplomacy officers are on the front lines and they are now – all of them are – are job officers. This is part of a whole-of-government effort with many different agencies and offices rowing in the same direction. And having all my government colleagues here, which you’ll hear from in a minute, will shows the commitment that the whole of government is here to support the travel and tourism industry. But we also need something more from all of you: a continued, genuine, active partnership with the private industry.

We’ve already made enormous progress, as all of you know. In January, the consular offices worldwide took President Obama’s executive order on travel and tourism and ran with it and embraced it and pushed it. Together, the State Department with our DHS colleagues are pushing forward on a very clear three-pronged strategy: increasing our productivity and efficiency, improving the traveler experience, and building partnerships with travel and tourism stakeholders to improve our processes.

Two weeks ago, we presented the progress report to President Obama. And as many of you know, we’re not just on track. We’re exceeding every one of the President’s goals. For an example, wait times less than a year ago – I repeat, less than a year ago – in Brazil, were 120 days. Now, because of the Herculean efforts of this Department, it has been less than three days throughout Brazil. Wait times are down 98 percent and volume is up 37 percent. (Applause.)

I should say the credit largely goes to our Assistant Secretary Janice Jacobs and her whole staff who have taken on this chore and have run with it and believe in it, that it’s important not only for your industry, but for America’s future. Of course, as we like to say, there’s still much work to be done. Worldwide we have launched a pilot program to waive some in-person – to low – excuse me – to waive some in-person interviews to low-risk applicants, opening more than 120,000 interview slots for our visitors.

We’re working to expand the reciprocal recognition programs for expediting travel, and we continue to work with our partners at DHS and elsewhere to find other ways to make it easier for travelers, including, wherever possible, helping countries meet the requirements for the Visa Waiver Program, which we’ll be talking about later this afternoon.

At every point in the process, we’re asking ourselves, “How can we find new efficiencies, and do our jobs even better? How can we use data we’ve already collected in a more productive way? Can we do some screening in advance? Can we use the Trusted Traveler Program and reuse that registration process more effectively? And how can we do our work better . faster, and more securely? We think big about reinventing the system, but to do so we need to help – you need to help us and help us with our own creativity and our own process.

I wish I could tell you that I can still keep surging more and more consular officers to push for the demand that is continuing. But as the State Department’s point person on the budget, as Michael pointed out, I know even the best investments are coming under enormous pressure – economic pressure from Capitol Hill. So more people and more buildings cannot be just our only answer. More cavalry may not be coming so fast. So we all need to think about how we can do more with less.

Of course, I would like to say it’s a good problem to have. Overflowing demand from around the world to visit and spend money in the U.S. is a problem all of us like to have. But as we address the growth of travel and tourism, one priority stands out as a precondition for everything we do. And that is security. The threat is very real. And we have no more sacred trust than protecting the American people. All the good efforts that we have done could be reversed in a nanosecond that we suffer another catastrophic attack from beyond our borders. And it is true that since 9/11, we have taken serious steps to prevent those who want to harm us from entering into the United States. None of the steps we’re discussing that we have changed will change that fundamental goal. We will never take our eye off the ball on security.

So before I turn it over to folks who live all these issues every day, our panel, I want to make a plea to the businesses that are here. Increasing travel and tourism must be a joint venture, as Roger knows. The more we can do to understand each others’ business models, the hurdles we face, and the solutions that are available to all of us, the more we can accomplish together. We want our strategic dialogue to be both strategic and a genuine dialogue. We all have an interest in making this very clear to the world, that America is opened for business. We all want to turn our visa application process into visitors. We want to do more to open our doors while protecting our borders. We want to turn a growing demand to visit our country into American jobs.

So ladies and gentlemen, let’s think creatively. Let’s not accept the way that things are and the way they have to be in the future. Let’s see if we can find better ways of doing things together. Because if we succeed, it will be good for your businesses, and it will be good for the American people.

So let me just begin before I end now to introduce a very close friend and a colleague, our friend Lisa Brown, who, by the way, as you may know is a chief performance officer at the White House and for the Office of Management and Budget. Lisa, make it clear, has been absolutely key to driving improvements in the way we manage travel and tourism. Lisa has had a successful career both inside government and outside government, and she brings her private sector experience to her current job of making government processes more effective and more efficient and more beneficial to the American people. Like me, she understands that government, as in business, if you can’t measure it, it’s not real. So I’m very eager to hear what she has to say about what we’re doing, and we’re going – and where we’re going. It’s my pleasure to introduce my friend, Lisa Brown. Thank you all very much. (Applause.)