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“Life is a Highway: Rural Tourism and the Prospects of Economic Opportunity”

Visitors in search of a memorable American experience encounter a wealth of attractive tourism opportunities in our country’s rural landscapes and communities.

The President recently unveiled an ambitious plan to make the United States the #1 tourist destination in the world. Each year, tens of millions of people from around the world visit the U.S. In 2010, the travel and tourism industry generated over $134 billion dollars for the American economy and tourism supported 7.5 million jobs.   

The President wants to build upon this success, and recently announced steps to ease the international arrival and admissions process for tourists to visit the United States. Frequent travelers who pass an extensive background check will be able to scan their passports and fingerprints and skip long lines at immigration at more airports through the Global Entry Program. As a result of the President’s action, the U.S. will expand the number of countries where visitors can get pre-cleared by Homeland Security so they don’t need a tourist visa. And we’re going to speed up visa processing for countries with growing middle classes that can afford to visit America – countries like China and Brazil. 

I want to take a moment to highlight what these actions mean for Rural America. The iconic images of Rural America’s assets – our farms and ranches, historic sites and small towns, and national parks, forests and seashores – are powerful motivators for international travelers who choose to spend their vacation time and money in America. Visitors in search of a memorable American experience encounter a wealth of attractive tourism opportunities in our country’s rural landscapes and communities.

Each year, millions of international tourists visit U.S. public lands and small towns, spending money at the local businesses that provide lodging, dining, retail and entertainment. Rural America plays a particularly important role in the national tourism economy by attracting and retaining tourists for longer visits: Overseas travelers to the U.S. who visit public or tribal lands tend to stay longer, to visit more destinations, and are more likely to be repeat visitors.[1] Outdoor recreation contributed $730 billion to the U.S. economy last year alone, and supported more than 6.5 million jobs.

When you look at the unique outdoor, historical and cultural experiences that visitors to rural America can enjoy, it makes sense that rural areas are integral to this endeavor. Rural America offers adventure, history, and rich experiences for families that will create lasting memories and there is much we can do to help Rural America capitalize on the opportunity that the President’s plan presents. The prospects for economic growth and the opportunities to highlight Rural America as a showcase for our nation are virtually endless.

Doug McKalip is Senior Policy Advisor for Rural Affairs in the White House Domestic Policy Council.

[1]U.S. Department of Commerce, ITA, Office of Travel & Tourism, International Travel to the United States: Focus on National Parks & American Indian - Alaska Native Tourism, March 2011