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It's Summer Vacation time: Take a trip: It's good for you, good for the economy

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When my Dad was 72 and by then had been working for the same company for 60 years, since he was 12, he would joke that he didn’t want to retire because he enjoyed his vacations too much.

Sure enough he delighted in planning out his annual Big Trip almost as much as he enjoyed actually traveling to Europe, South America, Asia - exotic locales then - chalking off a bucket list and invariably coming back with some new friendship that would last the rest of his life.

My parents were among the vanguard of jetsetters in the 1960s, taking advantage of an onslaught of jumbo aircraft and affordable air fares that put such trips within reach of the middle class. For my father, who grew up poor, being able to travel was the sign of having "arrived".

Back then, a trip to Europe was still considered a “trip of a lifetime” for most but for the burgeoning middle class, a vacation trip was considered an annual ritual, a sacred rite, whether it was the proverbial road trip or camping adventure, visiting a national park, or a resort stay or that family odyssey to a theme park.

People would rank vacation travel as the #1 discretionary purchase they would make after all the necessaries were paid.

Today most of us may take travel for granted – if you don’t travel this year, there is always another opportunity.- but that would be a mistake. For a travel experience is unique, fleeting and personal, as temporal and serendipitous as the confluence of weather, where you are in your life's journey, who you are with and who you happen to meet, and a score of factors that are delightfully beyond control.

"Travel has a unique power of putting the world into perspective. It could be while soaking up an awe-inspiring view or chatting with a local about their community, but at some point while traveling you remember what’s most important in life," is the way one travel company, Duvine Cycling & Adventure Co., put it.

The travel industry, through its advocacy organization, the US Travel Association, last year introduced a series of studies documenting The Travel Effect – to remind people that travel is an experience that cannot be put on a shelf and taken down at some later time. You will only be a single, college kid once; a fancy free young couple for a brief time, your kids will never be 8 and 10 years old again, and the opportunity for grandchildren to travel and really "be" with their grandparents will never come again.

Travel experiences do not just benefit the person - a means of recharging one's engines, building confidence through accomplishing something new, or engaging in some enlightening or enriching experience - but forge lasting bonds and relationships particularly among siblings, create lifelong memories, lay the foundation to facilitate learning and even promote worker productivity.

"Some of people's most vivid childhood memories are of family vacations that happened when they were as young as five," said Regina Corso of Harris Interactive, who conducted the poll of more than 2,500 adults and 1,100 youth for the USTA. "They take these away for a lifetime. Travel creates a sense of togetherness that you just don’t get during the normal times of the year."

Travel has a positive effect on learning, notes Jeff Wagner of The Learning Group. "Educational travel opens the mind, engaging, inspiring, transforming lives." When children get to visit a Living History Museum like Old Sturbridge Village, and see how a community lived, the inventions that led to the Industrial Revolution, they are more engaged and involved when it becomes a subject at school.

And travel may well be medicinal, because travel impacts the brain, helping to fend off the onset of illness, says neuroscientist Paul Nussbaum.

"Travel may well be the fountain of youth that explorer Ponce de Leon sought," says Mike Hoden of Global Coalition on Aging, "connecting healthy, active aging to travel. As we age, we are more likely remain healthy if we do things that are fun, interesting, imaginative, exciting."

Travel has an impact on productivity at work, too, because vacation time helps a person get recharged.

But too many people feel that if they take their vacation time, they will be perceived as slackers - and some employers may have that same idea.

As a result, one in four Americans does not take advantage of all their vacation time. And here is the conundrum: not taking vacation turns out to be counter-productive for workers, for their employers, and for the economy as a whole, the USTA says in a new campaign to remind people on the benefits of travel.

"American workers failed to use more than 400 million days of earned leave last year," according to research from Oxford Economics. "This underutilization of paid time off has a substantial impact on the U.S. economy and is taking a heavy toll on workplace productivity, personal well-being and family relationships.

In 2013, American workers left 429 million days of paid time off (PTO) on the table, an average of 3.2 days per employee.

That costs the U.S. economy $160 billion in lost business sales each year, sales that would support 1.2 million jobs if the vacation time that workers have earned were used, USTA says.

The additional economic activity would generate $21 billion in taxes, including $11.4 billion in federal, $4.1 billion in state, and $5.5 billion in local taxes.

If workers took just one additional day of earned leave each year, the U.S. would gain $73 billion dollars in economic output.

But an obstacle is that a significant number of managers consider employees who take all earned PTO as less dedicated (17%), generally less productive (14%) and less likely to get promoted (13%).

On the other hand, 48% of managers believe that taking time off had a positive impact on productivity, and both managers (67%) and their employees (55%) view taking all earned PTO as beneficial to physical health. More than half (58%) of all employees claim PTO improves their social life, and 67% believe time off improves family life.

Here are more benefits: after taking time off, three-quarters of managers report returning to work recharged and refreshed; 50% say they were more focused; and 41% feel a lower level of stress. For their employees, 67% report feeling refreshed upon return; 32% feel more focused; and 40% say they are less stressed.

But I think there is more going on here than people just needing a reminder about the benefits of travel or overcoming a fear that taking the vacation time they have earned will affect their job security.

The Great Recession and the massive layoffs – 8 million people jobs lost - did more than shake people's sense of financial security to the core. Those who were left standing were not only kept in a perennial state of insecurity over being next to be excessed, but were heaped with the jobs of three other workers already let go. An organization may be able to do without one or two workers, but three or four presumably doing significant things? That’s what this one worker represents.

Also, many more workers today are contract employees, part-time, consultants, or working for themselves – they don’t actually get paid vacation. Any time off is akin to losing money.

And finally, there is the very destruction of the middle class through a combination of eroded income, tax policy, the fact that real salary increases, and yes, a minimum wage that is not even close to a living wage.

All of this means that discretionary income - what people use to take their vacation trips- has about evaporated, along with the middle class.

Travel may be the first purchase a family makes after spending for necessaries, but they have to have some discretionary money to begin with.

This problem goes to the heart of the issue of minimum wage which does not measure up to a living wage. And here's the irony: most of the jobs creation since the Great Recession has been among in hospitality as well as health care, two industries that depend on minimum wage labor.

It is no surprise that the Restaurant Association has been a major lobbying force against raising the minimum wage (and should surprise most people that the minimum wage for restaurant workers isn’t even $7.25 but $2/hour).

For as long as there has been a tourism/hospitality industry – going back to the 1800s – it has been an engine of economic opportunity. This is an industry which has enabled women, minorities, new immigrants to rise from the lowest rungs - most likely at minimum wage - to the top rungs of their enterprises.

USTA Senior Vice President Gary Oster, himself (smarting at a remark about the minimum wage in the travel industry) recalls he earned minimum wage for his first job in the tourism industry in 1968. But back then, the minimum wage was a living wage, equivalent to $15 today, twice the actual amount of $7.25.

If the industry does not want to see the national minimum wage, hospitality companies should lead by example and raise the minimum wage on their own.

This will unleash a flood of new spending – on travel - much in the same way as Henry Ford paid his own workers enough so they could buy the cars they manufactured.

So just as the travel industry is making the argument that encouraging employees to take their vacation is good for the enterprise and good for the economy, raising the minimum wage will ultimately trigger more spending on travel because it will bump up wages for something 24 million people.

President Obama is the first president who truly understands the importance of the travel industry as an engine of economic growth and jobs creation - Reagan thought tourism "frivolous and unimportant," dismantled the tourism promotion agency within the Commerce Department and worked to eliminate Amtrak.

But Obama gets it. Obama has included promoting travel and tourism - including international travel - in his Opportunity Agenda that also includes investing in infrastructure - airports, ports, roads and bridges, and raising the minimum wage.

Within days of each other last week, Obama spoke first at the base of the Tappan Zee Bridge to highlight his desire to spur investment in infrastructure, and then returned to New York State to speak about the value of tourism at The Baseball National Hall of Fame at Cooperstown. (Obama is the first sitting president to visit the site, where he saw the ball tossed by William Howard Taft threw at the first-ever presidential opening day pitch, and contributed the jacket - not the jeans- he wore for his pitch at the 2009 All-Star Game).

He realizes that travel and tourism - the nation's second largest retail industry - is also an engine for jobs creation and a cash cow for the economy. Without despoiling or polluting, it provides an economic foundation for communities to preserve their heritage and history, to support small, local businesses. Sites like Cooperstown become magnets for visitors and support all the services needed to house, feed, educate and entertain them - these are jobs that cannot be out-sourced or off-shored.

Stories abound of people who started out as a bellboy and rose to be General Manager of a hotel or president of a hotel company abound or who rose from busboy to chef. And no industry provides more opportunities for women, minorities and immigrants. No industry has provided more pathways into the middle class than the travel-tourism-transportation-hospitality industry, which alone employs 8 million Americans.

In the rebound since the Great Recession began, hospitality jobs have been a big share - 580,000 of the 9.2 million jobs created. Last year alone, travel and tourism was responsible for $1.5 trillion in economic activity across the country.

Obama said, "I’m here in Cooperstown to talk about some new steps that will lead to more tourism not just within America but getting more folks to come and visit the treasures, the national treasures that we have all across this country, including the Baseball Hall of Fame right here in Cooperstown -- because tourism translates into jobs and it translates into economic growth. When visitors come here, they don’t just check out the Hall. They rent cars; they stay in hotels; they eat at restaurants. And that means for Upstate New York, the Baseball Hall of Fame is a powerful economic engine."

And it's not just Americans traveling around their own country, its international visitors who come.

"And when tourists come from other countries and spend money here, that’s actually considered a type of export..Nothing says 'Made in America' better than the Empire State Building or the Hoover Dam. Folks who work at restaurants and hotels that serve fans in Cooperstown have the kinds of jobs that can’t be offshored. And obviously it’s tough to ship the Rocky Mountains or the Grand Canyon overseas. You can’t do it.

"When it comes to tourism, the good news is we’ve got a great product to sell. People want to come here," he said.

Obama related how he took a walk from the White House to the Department of Interior building, and in the course of just 10 minutes, met tourists from Germany, and Israel, and Brazil, and China, and Ukraine on the National Mall. "The fact that people come from all over the world to see our parks, to see our monuments, is something we should take great pride in as Americans. And it’s good for our economy."

But tourism is not only an economic engine and a jobs-creation machine, it serves as an ambassador of understanding and good will. When people travel - Americans abroad and international visitors here - it fosters better understanding, people-to-people relationships and bonds.

I know this from my visit to China in 1978, before the actual opening of relations, when China was still technically behind a Bamboo Curtain. I watched how one of our group- a conservative Judge from the Midwest - was literally transformed before my eyes as the people who had been isolated behind that curtain became real for him.

And the same goes for visitors from abroad, as stereotypes and caricatures are replaced by real images.

Four years ago, Obama signed a law that set up a nonprofit organization with one mission, to pitch America as a travel destination.

"Last year, a record 70 million tourists visited America from other countries –- more than the populations of Texas, Florida, and New York combined, Obama said And they spent their money here. No country on Earth earns more money from international tourism than we do. And the growth of international tourism created about 175,000 new jobs over the last five years, and helped drive American exports to an all-time high.

"But we can do better," Obama said, setting a goal to receive 100 million international visitors a year, by 2020. "And meeting that goal is going to help create jobs here in New York."

To make that happen, more has to be done to facilitate entry into the country - the Obama Administration has worked to ease visa requirements and processing from some of the leading generators of tourism to the USA - Brazil and China, for instance. Now he is working to make the entry process at the borders - the airports and ports - more welcoming and more streamlined, using new systems that have been tested at Dallas/Fort Worth and Chicago's O'Hare airports.

It also means refurbishing the infrastructure - the airports and cruise ports, highways and bridges, themselves.

"The highway system was built 1950, New York's airports in 1930s and the rail system in mid-1800s," USTA's Oster says. "We have huge travel infrastructure challenge today – crumbling roads, inefficient airports, a rail system woefully behind Asia and Europe. The country needs investment - not a cost – in improved infrastructure, roads, rail, bridges, airport – that will insure vibrant economy and more people not dissuaded taking trip because don’t want to deal with airport delays, and such. The interstate system is to the point that Labor Day, around the country, could be every day, and Thanksgiving could be everyday at some major airports, as soon as next year

"As a country, we pride ourselves on having world class everything. The US does not have one airport that is rated in the Top 25 in the world – that is crime. The US ranks 24th in infrastructure in the world, We need to be in top 3 or 4."

Think about this as you are traveling about this summer, stuck in traffic on the roads and the airports, "if Congress doesn’t act by the end of this summer, federal funding for transportation projects will run out. States might have to put some of their projects on hold. In fact, some already are, because they’re worried Congress won’t clear up its own gridlock. And if Congress fails to act, nearly 700,000 jobs would be at risk over the next year," Obama said.

Karen Rubin, Long Island Populist Examiner
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