Tourism on Display as Obama Visits Mideast

Showing interest in culture and history is an act of goodwill.

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President Barack Obama views the Dead Sea Scrolls with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem on March 21, 2013.

Don't underestimate the power of presidential tourism.

I've covered presidents on many foreign trips over the years, ranging from Israel and Egypt to Japan, China and Europe. And I've found that it helps U.S. relationships abroad and creates goodwill when a commander in chief shows an interest in the local culture and visits sites of historical and symbolic interest. That's what President Obama is doing on his trip to the Mideast, and it's a smart move. 

[Read: Obama Trades Washington Gridlock for Mideast Gridlock.]

Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu stopped at the Israel Museum and examined the Dead Sea Scrolls. They saw a demonstration of a robotic device that can find victims in collapsed buildings, an example of the technology of which the Israelis are immensely proud. On Friday, Obama was to visit the grave of Theodor Hertzl, a founder of Zionism who is revered by many Israelis, and tour a Holocaust memorial in Jerusalem.

Obama isn't the first president to excel at presidential tourism. Bill Clinton also was very good at it. Whether he toured the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg, Russia or visited ancient ruins in Mexico, he showed that he appreciated the rich history of both countries. He also understood, his aides said, that a visit and a few positive words from a president can generate tourism and bring in revenue, a significant benefit in times of economic trouble.

In contrast, George W. Bush wasn't very good at tourism. He wanted to conduct his business and go home. When he visited the Great Wall of China in 2002, he spent a half-hour at this cultural marvel, saying that it hadn't changed since he visited it as a tourist 27 years earlier. But he observed that China's government seemed to be showing promise in making reforms. "The wall's the same. Different country," Bush said. Those reforms turned out to be a big disappointment.

[PHOTOS: Obama Makes First Trip to Israel.]

When Clinton visited the Wall in 1998, he was there for nearly two hours and showed a keen interest in every facet of its history and an understanding of its importance to the Chinese.

That's the attitude--recognizing the pride of the people he is visiting--that Obama is wisely demonstrating in his Mideast tour.

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  • Ken Walsh covers the White House and politics for U.S. News. He writes the daily blog, "Ken Walsh's Washington," for usnews.com, and is the author of "The Presidency" column for the U.S. News Weekly. He can be reached at kwalsh@usnews.com, and followed on Facebook and Twitter.