A softer, gentler America that looks a lot like Canada, with its depiction of diverse people and stunning landscapes, is the focus of a new travel campaign that is making the tourism industry here nervous, but experts say the real aim of the exercise may be to rebrand the "militaristic" United States.
The centrepiece of the Discover America campaign is a TV spot featuring the folksy Land of Dreams sung by Roseanne Cash accompanied by diverse musicians, while scenes of urban and nature vistas flash across the screen interspersed with multicultural images such as smiling women in hijab and musicians playing sitar and tabla. The tagline: Discover this land as never before.
The first national campaign to sell America to the rest of the world since the Reagan administration has been launched in Canada, the U.K. and Japan and will be expanded to Brazil, South Korea, Germany, Australia, China and India this fall and next year.
"The United States has never had a concerted organized national tourism effort in the international arena. We were one of the last industrialized countries to not have one. It was an oddity," said Chris Perkins, chief marketing officer of Brand USA, which is spearheading the campaign.
"We were basically allowing the individual brands across the U.S., pop culture and the news to spread the word about what we're all about as a country and when you think about it, that's a bit scary. It was high time.”
The Obama administration has set a goal of attracting 100 million foreign tourists a year by 2021 by expanding the number of people who can visit without visas, streamlining visa processing in key markets like China and Brazil and improving entry procedures at U.S. airports.
The $200-million US campaign comes at the same time our federal government has cut the budget of the Canadian Tourism Commission (CTC) by 20 per cent to $58.5 million in 2013 from $72 million this year.
"The Americans are the best marketers on the planet. When they decide to put their shoulder into it they can be very successful," said David Goldstein, president of the Travel Industry Association of Canada. "We’re going in exactly the opposite direction of most of our key competitors who are increasing their marketing spending internationally."
Canada slipping as tourist destination
The lack of marketing dollars here along with the high cost of aviation due to hefty fees and taxes makes it difficult for Canada to compete in the international tourism arena. It has slipped from seventh spot in 2002 among the world's top tourist destinations, to 18th place today.
Many countries including the U.S., U.K. and Australia fund a large part of their tourism budgets through levying an entry fee on visitors. Canada currently does not impose such a fee but is considering doing so along with other funding models.
In the meantime, part of the CTC's strategy is to piggyback on the anticipated success of the Discover America campaign by working with travel agents to sell Canada and U.S together as a package deal vacation, said Greg Klassen, the commission's senior vice-president of marketing.
Mature tourist destinations like North America and Europe are losing out to new exotic travel destinations that have been investing with vigour in marketing to tourists, he added.
"What we hope from this campaign is that they draw significant awareness to travel experiences in North America so we can grow the entire pie itself so that Canada has the opportunity to pick off some of those travellers and market it as a two-nation experience."
That's just fine with Perkins.
"I feel bad for the Canadian Tourism Commission and their budget cuts. I want them to be wildly successful in attracting people from all over the world to this part of the world. It’s all good when they do," he said.
"We share a lot as nations and folks that come here are quite likely to go there and vice versa and I'd like to see that continue to be the trend."
A related problem is increasing Canada's travel deficit.
"Not only are we losing our footing in the international travel space, Canadians themselves are quickly becoming one of the fastest growing outbound tourism markets in the world," Goldstein said.
Canadians prolific travellers
As the sixth highest revenue spenders in travel just behind Brazil, Russia, China, India and Australia, Canadians are prolific international travellers.
"We are a nation of international travellers and the rest of the world will start taking notice and increasingly go after Canadian travellers. This is just going to increase our travel deficit," said Klassen.
"We’ll get more and more Canadians travelling abroad, spending abroad and perhaps less spending in Canada because we rely to a great extent on those domestic travellers within Canada to support our tourism industry. So that's a worry in terms of the competitive threat not just from Brand USA but other countries that will target Canadians in the future.
"A lot of their budgets will be built on the backs of the Canadian traveller so what we're effectively doing is investing in our competitor countries' tourist organizations to compete against us."
Meanwhile, despite the hoopla surrounding Brand USA's campaign, experts say it may not do much to actually promote international tourism to America, although the ad is a hit on social media.
"People universally like the campaign, even objectors are having trouble finding something to criticize about it, according to anecdotal data from social media," said Perkins.
There was no conscious decision to make the U.S. look like Canada, although "we do share a lot of commonalities in terms of freedoms and diversity," he added.
"There's a little of bit of everyone in America and there's a little bit of America in everyone in the world. We hope by depicting this freedom and diversity we make the world seem closer and more open. We need that sense of optimism and the possibility to be a better world."
Ashwin Joshi, a professor of marketing at York University's Schulich School of Business in Toronto points out what the ad is missing.
Iconic American images missing
It doesn't show the Empire State building, Mount Rushmore, Disneyland or the awesome lifestyle of California — the iconic American images.
"Instead it shows women in hijab, a gay couple on a streetcar in San Francisco and people having a picnic, so the imagery they were going after is, this is the land of diversity and inclusion," he said.
"People don’t necessarily associate warm and fuzzy feelings with America. They associate magnificent accomplishments with America, but this was about people and relationships and that's what made it look Canadian to us. It celebrates Canadian traits for sure."
Adds Usha George, dean of community studies at Ryerson: "I didn't think it was about the US. I just assumed it was an ad for Canada."
"The melting pot they once thought America was is not the reality. People are holding on to their cultures, their identities and beliefs although they are very proud to be American as well. That hyphenated identity is very common in Canada," said George.
"The ad shows that women in hijab can walk around freely in the U.S. They're not being harassed or asked to change. They have fundamental freedoms and can participate in this big life that is America , which is calm, serene and beautiful. It's an alternative theme to what they used to sell themselves in the past, which was economic and military might and power."
However, Joshi isn't sure the ad will resonate with the target market, which is travellers from all over the world because it's too different from what they expect America to be like or they want America to be like.
"For tourism, I don't think it's much of a sell. If I put on my tourist hat, of all of the reasons that drives me to visit a place the fact that it's multicultural would not make my Top 5. As a tourist, I'm not going to visit a place where people with my skin colour or sexual preference are despised but the fact that people like me live there doesn't necessarily draw me to that country either. We go to visit places because they are different from where we live," Joshi said.
Political agenda behind ad?
The ad will do more to promote travel by Americans within their own country rather than drawing international visitors to it, he predicts.
More importantly, Joshi believes there's a political agenda behind the ad.
"It's an attempt to reframe or rebrand America to offset the harsher imaging of the U.S. that is shown around the world in terms of its involvement in various militaristic exploits and as a counterpoint to the negative narrative told by the BBC or Aljazeera. It's a conscious attempt to soften America's image in the rest of the world and it does that job remarkably well."
Perkins doesn't deny that.
"While our focus is on helping people understand the U.S. is a nation they can visit, and even if they can't visit, we hope they can have a greater understanding of us as a place and a part of the global community."
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