Visitors pass the Torch of Friendship on a river barge. Credit: Courtesy / Visit San Antonio

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The U.S. Travel Association has settled on the theme “Then and Now” for its National Travel & Tourism Week, which begins Sunday, May 6. It’s an invitation to compare what once was with what is today.

For San Antonio, it’s always a powerful exercise. The city, celebrating its 300th birthday, is also marking 50 years since HemisFair, the international showcase that served as lift-off for San Antonio’s stratospheric visitor industry.

In those five decades, the community’s tourism and hospitality sector has blossomed into a $14 billion economic generator, employing more than 130,000 citizens and spurring the kind of investment that has resulted in the Alamodome, Henry B. Gonzalez Convention Center, Tobin Center for the Performing Arts, and so much more.

Those additions have helped fuel San Antonio’s ascension as a preferred destination, not only for leisure travel but for impactful business. As much as a financial engine, the visitor industry helps provide quality-of-life incentives for companies looking for diverse lifestyle choices for their employees.

Those choices grow seemingly by the day in one of the United States’ most dynamic, authentic cities.

The city, no longer the sleepy burg with a population of less than 500,000 in 1968, is today the seventh-largest metropolis in the country. In nearly every direction, there is evidence of San Antonio’s investment in itself – much of it recent – with benefits for residents, tourists, and businesses.

The expansion of the Broadway corridor, including the incredible reclamation project that is the Pearl; the transformation of the Henry B. Gonzalez Convention Center, the largest infrastructure upgrade in city annals; the $100 million makeover of the Witte Museum; the evolution of our famed River Walk from three miles to more than 15 miles long, now offering a diverse lineup of culinary, lodging, and scenic hikes – all of it, and more, have served to dramatically remake our landscape.

The 2015 designation of our Spanish-colonial Missions as a UNESCO World Heritage Site is another factor in making San Antonio one of the top tourism destinations in the U.S., with approximately 35 million visitors annually.

National Travel & Tourism Week, the annual salute to travel and its impact in the U.S., provides the opportunity to showcase the industry to policymakers, business leaders, and media. In San Antonio, there will be salutes to the many areas that affect the city’s third-largest industry, including first responders, transportation entities, hospitality workers, students, and others.

Later this month, Visit San Antonio will recognize the tourism and hospitality sector with its first Visit San Antonio Honors event on May 16. There, industry influencers will celebrate the winners of the Con Corazon, Robert H.H. Hugman, and Certified Tourism Ambassador of the Year awards. We will also take the opportunity to recognize our five-year CTAs – the individuals who started this valuable program.

Indeed, National Travel & Tourism Week is an opportunity to recognize an industry that is the nation’s seventh-largest employer, supporting nearly 16 million jobs. Overall, one in nine American jobs depends on travel. In San Antonio, it’s one in eight employees.

In contrast to stubborn perception, travel industry jobs are often the catalyst for enduring and lucrative careers. Consider that, according to the U.S. Travel Association, two in every five American workers whose first job was in the travel industry are now earning more than $100,000 per year. One-third of those employees who began their careers in hospitality have earned their bachelor’s degrees, compared to just 28 percent in health care, 19 percent in construction, and 18 percent in manufacturing.

Overall, travel is a $2.4 trillion catalyst for the U.S. economy, generating $165.8 billion in tax revenue for federal, state, and local governments. In San Antonio alone, the industry drives nearly $375 million in taxes and fees contributed annually to all local governments.

Both then and now, supporting the travel and hospitality industry in San Antonio has been a worthwhile and economically sound investment. As we move forward, that won’t change.

San Antonio, vastly different today than in 1968, is poised to see even more potent growth that will spur visitation and potential business development.

In coming months and years, all eyes will be on the San Pedro Creek Project, the carefully planned rethinking of the Alamo footprint, the Hemisfair makeover and such projects as a downtown baseball stadium, transportation initiatives, and continued improvements to the San Antonio International Airport.

For San Antonio’s tourism and hospitality industry, it’s a timeline to be celebrated – then, now, and beyond.

Casandra Matej is president and CEO of Visit San Antonio.