In a bid to promote Washington, DC, the capital city of the United States, as an attractive tourist destination, Destination DC (DDC), the official destination marketing organisation for Washington, DC, recently conducted a sales and media mission in India. The mission, which was held from 1 to 5 April in three cities – Mumbai, Ahmedabad and New Delhi – helped the organisation connect with over 300 travel partners.

The theme of the event was the National Cherry Blossom Festival, which celebrates 107 years of close ties between the people of the United States and Japan. The festival started on 20 March in DC and will continue till 14 April.

In a special interview to thestatesman.com, Elliott L. Ferguson II, the president and CEO of Destination DC, sits down to talk about what the US capital has to offer other than what is shown in tourism postcards, why DC is looking forward to Indian travellers, the growing ties between US and India, and whether Donald Trump’s border wall will have an impact on tourism.

What is India Sales Mission and what do you intend to achieve with that?

We are here promoting Washington, DC as a destination for Indians to come and visit, of course, the US and Washington. We are here giving folks from India a different perspective on what we have to offer as a city.

Who are the targets and what kind of traveller is DDC pitching to?

We are targeting those who influence travel. So meeting with travel agents to operators – those who are in the position to put together packages in terms of promoting US and promoting travel to the US and look at Washington as a part of the itinerary, which in most case, is always considered. The question is whether we are considered for one day or three days and how we can look at itinerary of individuals planning their travel. And the other (targets), of course, meeting with folks like yourself of the media who can perhaps give a different perspective of DC, not just the Washington they see on TV every day that is politically driven – which is a part of the city but quite frankly beyond that there is so much to see and do in Washington.

Why is DDC targeting the Indian market now?

We have been actively involved in targeting the international market for years. We have probably been more aggressive in Indian market in last five years – this is the fourth visit. We are always here in Delhi thanks to the Air India non-stop flight from Washington. And then we are always doing a secondary city. So we are always looking at ways in which we can expand how Washington is considered a destination.

India is a top market for tourism promoters of a number of countries. How is DDC facing this competition?

We are focusing on the ease of getting a visa. Focusing on the fact that if you are flying (from) here in India, you are flying non-stop. One of the options is flying into Washington, DC. One advantage is being in the nation’s capital in addition to going to other cities. I’d like to say that we don’t necessarily compete with other cities because I encourage travellers to see the rest of US as well. But make sure you make Washington a part of the itinerary, perhaps at the beginning or end but make it a part. And for the most part, international visitors and Indian travellers are interested in Washington, DC. But they don’t know exactly what to expect beyond perhaps their perception of one museum not the fact that there are 80 museums and 16 of them are free – part of Smithsonian, monuments and memorials are free. It’s easy to get around the city. They are not considering the diversity of the things to do. The amazing food, which resonates with Indian travellers greatly, retail, outdoor activity, sporting events, night life as well as the traditional monuments, memorials, museums. The fact that there are two rivers that run through Washington, which offer kayaking, boat rides, etc. How do we make sure that Indian traveller knows how amazing Washington is as a destination? And as we look at our current campaign, it was developed quite frankly because when people would come to Washington for the first time – journalists and others – they said they had no idea that DC was so cool. It really gave us a chance to position Washington based on the words that people had stated in terms of coming for first time and recognising there is more to see and do in the city.

So there are a lot of attractions in Washington other than what we see on tourism postcards?

Yeah, I would say that the tourism postcards – as reference usually CNN or BBC or Indian news – that’s not necessarily the DC I know. Most Washingtonians, including myself, are not from Washington. I was born in Washington State, but have lived in Washington for 17 years. So discovering the real DC to me will be the great restaurant in my neighbourhood in Capitol Hill or shopping in Eastern market or going to a concert at the Warf. (We are) giving individuals a sense that DC is much more diverse than the moving postcards which we call the news. So in our marketing we are focussing on how to bring that cool element that people experience.

Tourism is one of the major economic drivers of any country. And that includes the US. But shutdowns threaten this industry. How do you work around these hiccups?

We focus on what is open. The fact that DC is open for business. There is a perception that because the Federal element being in DC, which is pretty prominent, that when the government shuts down Washington shuts down, too. The reality is that though the Smithsonian is a part of the Federal government, there are lot of private museums, a lot of things to see and do in the city. There are no padlocks saying you can’t come in because the government is shutdown. Our job is to focus on the fact that every other aspect of the city – nightlife, theatres, outdoor activities, etc. – all those things are still viable options and how do we make sure that visitors know what there is to see and do in spite of something that we can’t control such as the government shutdown.

And hopefully may be make sure that the government understands the negative impact of the shutdown! I chair the US Travel Association and part of what we try to do is for the government to understand the negative perspective not just on Washington but also other states like New York and parts of the US such as Utah and Colorado where there are large National State Parks which are run by the Federal government. It’s just a negative perception of travel to the US and travel to a city like Washington when a government shuts down.

Indian students were arrested in the case of a fake college in the US. The college was being run by Department of Homeland Security. India maintains the students were duped. So do you not believe that such instances carry forward a negative perception in the minds of Indian students because they form a large chunk of Indians who travel to US?

I think anything that’s negative give people a reason to pause. But look at the bigger picture. We turn to the news for what’s happening. Most news stories are looking for something that can be reported. This is not always positive, but as you look at the bigger picture, which we are focussing on, (that is) far more receptive than instances that happen from time to time. This is not suggesting g that those things (college incident) are not a big deal or we are not concerned about them but I think there is a bigger picture in terms of how America receives people from all over the US. As we look at Washington, it is a city that is basically made of people that have roots in other parts of the US and the world. There are 89 embassies in Washington. There is a large global community including Indian community in Washington. That is really a part of fabric of America that is made up – of people from all over the world. Washington, DC is a good example. As you look at the situation, clearly it’s not positive – but you have to look at the bigger picture and we hope that the bigger picture paints a more positive perception of how Indians are treated in Washington, DC and America.

Does this also apply to US President Donald Trump’s Border Wall move?

Yeah, I think we would like the rhetoric to be much different from our President. And we are concerned about the rhetoric but I think that the overall position of the American people of this industry is that Washington and the US are very welcoming. If we look at immigration issues – he is not the first or last President to deal with immigration. He just happens to have an approach that we do not necessarily agree with. We were in China (before India) and there is always this question about tariffs and does it affect travel and the reality is it doesn’t. And that’s part of why brand USA exists to help give the right messaging in terms of how welcoming America is as a destination.

We talked about visa. Many Indians have faced the issue of one type of visa, journalist visa for example, getting cancelled if one gets a tourist visa. Is there any specific rule about this?

Honestly, I cannot give a fair assessment as to why. I will tell you that we will look into it and have someone follow up on why one cancels out the other. I don’t really have an answer. I will say that when we look at leisure perspective of travel to the US we have heard nothing but positive things in terms of obtaining visa especially from Indian community. We are very happy to hear that getting visa for visitation is very easy. We will look into the other scenario.

India is a civilization. Here the dialect and culture changes every 4 miles. How will DDC tap into this wide universe? Is there a plan tailored for every segment?

We really rely on the representation that we have in a country. We will not profess that we are going to know all there is about Indian culture. We rely on them (representation) to help us understand the communities that we are going in to and how to effectively promote our destination. Similar to India, US has different cultures. But there are always likenesses.

The bottom-line is that in our marketing we understand that one size doesn’t fit all. You are from one country doesn’t mean you all speak the same language. We rely on the experts in the countries to give us insights on where we should be and how we should focus on market accordingly.

Some international tourism boards, such as Tourism Australia, have hired Bollywood celebrities as brand ambassadors. Does DDC have any such plans?

We would like to do more. (But) my budget will not allow me. One fundamental difference is that Australia is a country…maybe Brand USA will look into it. We have been very fortunate that the last issue of Condé Nast had a multiple page spread of Aishwarya Rai Bachchan promoting DC. She is very attractive woman and she made Washington look good. Therefore, there is an opportunity. We have been talking about how we can capitalise on future opportunities as far as we have that type of representation or at least we have an opportunity to have celebs from different countries coming to DC and help us promote.

Washington DC has 12 sister cities but none of them is Indian. Don’t twinning of cities help? Are there any such plans?

We are not part of the government, we are a private organisation. Even when our city enters into sister city agreements with cities they will talk to us and ask us how this ties to what you all are doing. But not all sister city agreements are beneficial to our efforts. We haven’t talked about India yet but because we work closely with DC government and know the Secretary of the District of Columbia, we will probably have a conversation about that. India has a very large embassy in DC (at Massachusetts Avenue NW) and therefore a large footprint. (But) Sister city agreements and tourism are not necessarily always intertwined. What we do is economic development, and economic development in terms of business is different from economic development in terms of tourism.

And why is sister city agreement not beneficial (in terms of tourism)?

There may be a major city that has a large port or does a lot of exporting and therefore they want to have a sister city agreement with Washington, DC from the standpoint of business, but they ae not necessarily strong tourism attractions. So if you do a sister city agreement with them based on the type of business in terms of technology or other variables whereas we are strong tourism destination – are we really comparing apples to apples? If we talk about Delhi and DC, I see the synergy. But we could be talking about another large city in India that is not necessarily a top destination for international travellers within India and that has to be looked at much differently.

If the city is not a strong attraction for tourism and if the synergies are not parallel then perhaps it’s not the best opportunity for us.

India and the US are deepening their partnerships in various sectors. What is your view of the increasing closeness of the relations?

Well, one of them is ease of travel between the two countries has become much better, which is why we are hearing the positive news of Indian travellers getting visas – which is good for us. And this gives us a chance to be a part of the economic growth in a country like India where the population is large. And seeing the changes (that are) similar to what we are seeing in China where there are more and more people who can travel, and we all benefit from that. I think those are the positive aspects of any type of interactions or agreements that pertain to trade.

As someone with around three decades of experience in hospitality and travel, how do you see the future of tourism?

In America and the US Travel Association, we recognise the fact that we have not done a good job of getting America the country to understand the impact of tourism, the impact of international visitors. They think they get it but they don’t get it. They don’t get the fact that the trillions of dollars that it generates on all levels. Similar to here in India as in this hotel which I imagine has upwards of 500+ people as its staff. What if that hotel went away? What would that mean in terms of jobs being created – florists, bakers, etc.? We are understanding the importance of this industry in America and the US Travel Association, and getting our elected officials understand the impact. I only see as we are doing more business with other nations. (There are) more opportunities to travel, at the end of the day we are an economic development organisation, but the opportunities to travel gives us a chance to understand each other’s cultural uniqueness and therefore brings us together, and it starts bringing down the wall of cultural difference. The coming of an African American to India or to a country which are not exposed to African Americans outside of Hollywood gives them a chance to understand that we are not much different. Other than cultural differences there are likenesses that are important. That’s the power of tourism. And it also gives us a chance to, as we talked about earlier, do business together. That’s my long way of saying I only see positive opportunities in terms of future growth especially as the economy gets better and more and more airlines give us a chance to travel to other parts of the world. That’s why I am really excited.

Have you seen any marked change in ease of doing business in India over the last few years?

I would say that I cannot speak in terms of aspects of tourism. I would say relations have become better. I have been in Washington for 17 years. I remember visiting Washington about 20 years ago. Bill Clinton was President and staying in the Ritz-Carlton, which is now the Fairfax hotel, and the statue of Mahatma Gandhi was being erected across the street. I just remember watching two cultures coming together, building upon the relationship and understanding the significance. Now every time I pass by that Gandhi statue which is pretty prominent – and we were (recently) in Ahmedabad and we had chance to go to the Gandhi museum – it kind of ties into one of my memories why I would want to travel to India early in my career and how I am intrigued and interested in the relationships and things that are happening in this country …I think that’s really a part of why people travel, why people come to places. I was reading book reports on India not knowing I would be in the industry. I tell my team that we will visit the Taj Mahal. It was always something that I wanted to do since I was a kid. I think somewhere it answers your question. I think that’s the kind of power of travel and the opportunity for our countries to come together.

What other cities are you targeting apart from Delhi?

Clearly Tier I cities. We have done Hyderabad three times and we did Ahmedabad for the very first time on this mission. We will more than likely be here every year, if not more, now with the relationship with India will probably be looked at. Equally as important to us here would be journalists like yourself and those who influence travel to come to Washington. How am I going to talk about Delhi unless I come to Delhi? You have to experience the destination to truly appreciate it. So I think it’s going to be always important to get more folks like yourself and your colleagues to come in Washington and then when I come back, we’ll have a different type of exchange – you’d be able to have an exchange with me based on your experience, which is important.