Roger Dow didn't wear a red tie and didn't tug on his shirt collar on Wednesday, but the leader of the Travel Industry Association described travel and tourism as the "Rodney Dangerfield of industries."

"We get no respect, and I don't know why that is," the president and chief executive officer of the association said at the final day of the Utah Tourism Conference. "I think it's because we're so big, people have trouble getting their arms around it."

The industry represents restaurants, airlines, rental cars, destinations and more, he said, with a total economic impact of $740 billion nationally.

Still, most Americans, government leaders and the news media don't grasp the power of the travel and tourism industry, he said.

"We're really the front door to economic development, to growth and all that. No one made the decision to buy a second home in Deer Valley or here in Utah without first visiting here for a meeting or a convention or a vacation. No one made the decision to move their corporate headquarters here without visiting here and seeing the quality of life they could enjoy or their families could enjoy," he said.

"So that's why this whole thing, this darling called travel/tourism, is so critical, not just to our industry but to everything we call the American economy."

The beauty of the "darling of industries" is that visitors to Utah "leave their money and they go home," Dow said. "You don't have to educate their children. You don't have to fill their potholes. You don't have to feed their homes. It's a beautiful thing."

One in eight Americans are employed in a tourism-related job. Utah has 113,000, with $6 billion in tourism/travel spending annually and 20 million visitors — a figure that's up 25 percent during the past four years. Travel results in $617 million in annual state tax revenues.

But the industry is facing trouble on several fronts. While domestic travel is up 1.5 percent from 2007, the number of business travelers is down 1.7 percent. And while the economic stimulus package "came at a good time," skyrocketing gasoline prices might affect Americans' travel plans, he said.

"We're watching the gas impact very carefully. It's been our experience over 30 years of watching this that Americans don't give up their vacation. What they usually do is modify what their vacation is," Dow said.

Usually, that means traveling closer to home or staying in the United States rather than visiting Europe.

International travel to the United States also shows troubling trends. While the United States had 57 million international visitors last year, up from 51 million in 2000, many are coming from Canada and Mexico, and those travelers spend $800 to $900 per trip. Long-haul, overseas travelers usually spend $3,000 to $4,000 per trip, he said.

The U.S. market share of foreign travelers continues to slip, from 9 percent in 1992 to 6 percent in 2007. That meant a loss of $135 billion for the industry during the past six years, Dow said.

The main factors are costly and lengthy processes to obtain visas to visit the United States, a perception in the foreign media that "the U.S. doesn't want you here" resulting from long delays at airports and borders, and a lack of promotion about U.S. travel policies, he said.

Improvements happening now include adding the number of countries with visa waivers and increasing the number of border-protection officers. The Travel Promotion Act, working its way through Congress, would help raise money to promote U.S. travel policies, and the Travel Industry Association's Web site is being launched this month.

The industry also needs to better convey benefits of travel beyond the economic ones, he said, adding that travelers typically are healthier, attend better schools and have better careers than folks who don't venture out. He would add "roaming" to the three Rs of reading, writing and arithmetic.

"If our children roam around the world and the world roams around to see us, then we'll thrive," Dow said. "If we don't roam around the world and we don't allow the world to roam around and see us, then the world will pass us by."

E-mail: [email protected]