Monday, July 25, 2011

Attracting national and global tourists to Houston

PWC ranked Houston #11 *in the world* for business, life, and innovation - a really amazingly high ranking when you think about it.  Here's what they said:
Best : #2 in cost of owning business space, entrepreneurial environment and life satisfaction, #3 in commute time and cost of living  
Worst : Last in foreign job-creating investment and international tourists  
Details: Houstonians love Houston. So do US business owners. The rest of the world ... not so much. With lax zoning laws and plentiful space, Houston's low cost of living and doing business is a dream for American businesses and middle class workers, but the rest of the world pretends as though the city doesn't exist. The city has fewer international tourists than any other comparable global city.
That sparked an interesting debate started over at HAIF on how to improve Houston's tourism, especially for foreign visitors.  This has always been a tough issue for Houston.  We just don't get tourism proportionate to our global economic standing, and out-of-sight is out-of-mind.  But what would a realistic strategy possibly be?
  • Out family-fun Orlando?
  • Out weather California?
  • Out beach Florida or Hawaii?
  • Out culture New York?
  • Out museum DC or New York?
  • Out gamble/adult-fun Las Vegas? (or South Beach?)
  • Out ski Denver or Salt Lake City?
  • Out history New Orleans, Boston, Savannah or Charleston? (or even San Antonio)
See what I mean?  People choose vacation locations for specific reasons, and the winners are pretty damn dominant.  We're stuck as a local/regional "big city" tourism destination like Chicago is for the midwest and Atlanta is for the southeast, with our share of great museums, restaurants, shopping, and a few attractions - but not enough to pull people from across the country - much less the world - to vacation here.  Our one niche exception - something with some global pull - has been NASA JSC and Space Center Houston, but who knows what the future is there.

Here's a long-shot proposal I made a few years ago on this blog, one that would build on the NASA niche:
Finally, Houston needs to upgrade its tourism experience. All great, world-class cities offer a compelling tourism experience, even if only for a short trip. Even with NASA, the Galleria, and solid museum and theater districts, this has been one of Houston’s most glaring weaknesses, and one that has kept us off the radar for educated, well-traveled professionals. Again, the light rail network and some vibrant pedestrian districts will help greatly, but we really need one powerful, anchor “mega-attraction” that will actually draw people to Houston for at least a long weekend. One niche where I think Houston could be distinctive would be the world’s largest engineering and technology museum – something along the lines of DC’s National Air & Space Museum, Munich’s Deutsches Museum, and Chicago’s Museum of Science and Industry. It could even be one of the Smithsonian’s network of National Museums, which have started to move out beyond Washington DC (Design in NYC, Industrial History planned for Pittsburgh). Think of it as Houston’s version of Paris’ Louvre or London’s British Museum. The combination with Space Center Houston could create a national draw, not to mention a wonderful source of educational and career inspiration for our youth. As far as sites, 109 acres just became available at the end of the light rail line with the closing of Astroworld – not to mention the old Astrodome - both easily accessible to downtown and Reliant Park conventioneers. Any well-heeled philanthropists out there?
Done on a large enough scale, I could see it attracting not just the usual tourists, but multi-day student group field trips from all over like Space Camp does in Huntsville or the Smithsonian complex in DC - inspiring a new generation of scientists and engineers.  It should not just focus on history, but articulate the great engineering and technology challenges we face going forward.  It would be a big, bold, expensive gamble - but could be just the ticket to move us up to the next level in tourism and international recognition.

Update: this concept is expanded in a newer post, A targeted tourism strategy for Houston

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At 10:21 PM, July 25, 2011, Blogger Rail Claimore said...

Interesting that you mention the top attraction of my hometown, but hardly anyone in Huntsville ever visits the US Space and Rocket Center or goes to Space Camp. That's the thing to do for out-of-towners, which I guess is the point.

At 9:48 AM, July 26, 2011, Blogger TheLetterAHyphenTheNumberOne said...

To address the Chicago comparison, Navy Pier in Chicago is the 10th most popular tourist destination in the U.S. About 33% more out of town visitors each year than Sea World. Chicago is the 10th most U.S. popular destination for overseas visitors.

At 10:24 AM, July 26, 2011, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

I'm guessing most of Chicago's tourism is of two types: 1) midwesterners looking for an easy weekend driving or short, cheap flying trip, and 2) people visiting friends and family in Chicago (9m metro) that happen to go to tourist attractions in town while visiting (like Navy Pier). Pretty much the same profile as Houston (Kemah = Navy Pier). Not the same as a place people nationally or globally plan their big vacations around.

At 3:09 PM, July 26, 2011, Blogger Gary said...

The NASA complex is certainly interesting enough, but could be jazzed up even further; throw in fast public transit from there to downtown Houston, the museum district and the beaches & you might have something going.

At 3:45 PM, July 26, 2011, Blogger Michael said...

The difference between Chicago and Houston is that Chicago is *the* dominant big-city destination for Midwestern road trips and short-flight trips. Plus, it is still 3x as big as Houston with about 3x as much stuff to do. Plus, it is 75 degrees there during the 3+ months of summer which is one of the peak US travel seasons - so it's a great place to go during the summer - and you can still enjoy the outdoors and the lake. The lake and river are also right there - you do not have to drive 40+ miles to enjoy them as you do in Houston / Galveston area. Plus Chicago is easy to navigate on foot, rail, bus, etc - which is an advantage that tourists appreciate. And cheap - $2 from the airport to my destination the last time I was there thanks to the rail. Chicago is still easy and relatively affordable to drive around if that is your preference.

Chicago is like a miniature NYC, which is a big draw for the entire Midwest. Houston doesn't really have that kind of draw - or the advantage of being the only mega-city in our region - why not go to Dallas or maybe even New Orleans or San Antonio instead of Houston? Chicago also has a lot of music festivals so it kind of doubles as the Midwest's "Austin" - which is another place people are likely to visit over Houston.

I don't think there's an easy fix to this. But I do think investing in making Galveston a first-class beach destination, and making it easy to get to Galveston, could help out a lot. As it is I rarely go to Galveston because I don't want to burn 100 miles of gas.

At 5:13 PM, July 26, 2011, Blogger Jardinero1 said...

Houston has a huge international community. These are people who come here because they or their companies have determined that it is a great place to invest, work and live. I would rather have that reputation than the reputation that New York City or Los Angeles enjoys, which is that it is really cool to visit there but you would never want to live or do business there.

Tory would probably counter, why can't we be both? I say that the two types of cities(touristic or not touristic) are mostly incompatible. Cities that are great for tourism are usually past their prime and tend to look backwards more than forwards. When you start into the mode of trying to keep things the way they are for the sake of tourism, you are done. I think the measure of whether a city has peaked or not, is when it starts to worry more about attracting tourists than residents or businesses. I don't want Houston to even start down that path.

At 8:30 PM, July 26, 2011, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

Chicago is 1.5x Houston. (9m vs. 6m metro) But I agree with most of the other points. Houston is at a disadvantage even vs. the 2nd tier Chicago model.

J: I worry about that too. I in no way want to compromise what's great about Houston to add a little tourism. I'm putting this idea out there, but I'm actually ok with Houston staying off the tourism radar. But I don't think this idea would cause the stagnation/preservation problem you describe that cities like New Orleans have.

At 6:08 PM, July 30, 2011, Anonymous Mike said...

San Antonio wasn't that dominant for tourism until somebody decided to cater to 27 year old Robert Hugman and his riverwalk idea.

As for Chicago, I sometimes think of that movie "Ferris Bueller's Day Off" where the kids skip school and go visit all of the city's attractions and wonder, could they make a movie like that about Houston? I think they did Sears Tower, Art Institute, Board of Trade, pricey French restaurant, Wrigley Field, and a downtown festival on State Street. What comparable "day on the big city" could one do in Houston?

At 6:15 PM, August 05, 2011, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Actually Houston has better art museums than D.C., and for many genres, better than NYC. Add that to the NMH and a few others, and Houston's museum scene is indeed world-competitive.

You might note that blockbuster international art exhibits come to Houston at least as often as to other U.S. cities.

At 9:05 PM, August 05, 2011, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

I agree our museums are amazing, but I don't think most museums draw long-distance tourists except maybe families and school groups to DC. People tend to go to an exciting city and then fit in a museum visit or two. It's not "I really want to see the Louvre, so I guess I'll go to Paris," it's "I'm going to Paris, so I might as well spend some time at the Louvre."

I know that undermines my argument for a Engi/Tech museum, but I think the key difference is the future challenge focus and inspiring kids to go into STEM fields. That could attract all sorts of families that want to inspire their kids into a STEM career. NASA Space Center Houston makes the decision even easier.

At 1:09 PM, November 26, 2011, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

More good discussion in this HAIF thread:


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