In general, you should be right about the similarity between country and, as you say, car branding. This is correct for the most known destinations of car brands. Meaning the consumer or the tourist already has a brand “emotion” imbedded in his mind. The brand was created years, even centuries ago and now can be only a question of money and time to make the purchase or enjoy it. That is valid for France (a culture brand), Mexico (cheap beaches, Indian culture), etc., as it is valid for Mercedes (reliable luxury), Ford (cheap American), etc.
Since I work mostly with emerging destinations in Europe, branding is not so simple. A 1-2 word definition of the emotion, which certain country of region inspires, is sometimes impossible, sometimes completely wrong. Let’s take Georgia (the country), for example: when an American hears about the country, he thinks “war”. Same thing was with Croatia, before they succeeded to separate their country from the tainted brand of “Balkans” or “former Yugoslavia” and place their brand under the “Mediterranean” appeal.
In the eyes of the Georgians, as they position themselves, the country as “where Europe stared” - wrong from history point of view, but right if trying to avoid the bad branding of the war regions. In the mind of most East Europeans, Georgia is a “wine” country. So how you brand this beautiful country to the Americans and urge them to purchase a ticket to a place that they can enjoy great wine and millennia history amidst Kalashnikov gunfire? The tourism in Israel, with the same risks for the life of the visitors, as in Georgia, is flourishing. Why? Because the century old brand of Jerusalem as the birthplace of Christianity.
So I guess your answer is right if you have to brand a region in an already smartly branded destination – the Loire Castles in France, or the Grand Canyon - the country or region brand helps you and the decision is made immediately – the trust to the bigger (geographically) brand helps.
But how you can brand a Volga (a Russian car)? Or Stara Zagora Region in Bulgaria (this is what I am doing now)? There is no person I know who will see a commercial of a Volga on the US TV and go to the store to buy it, no matter how appealingly you brand it. Same thing with Stara Zagora region - nobody from, let’s say, Australia, will digest a brand, which by default is a sub-brand of an unknown destination.
And of course, it is question of good luck and money. The Siberian Airlines - a brilliant and very expensive solution of Landor, didn’t need too much time to establish themselves as a better alternative to Aeroflot for the East parts of the Russian Federation and beyond. Aeroflot had such a bad image and brand presence, that any smart branding of a different airline should do it. So bad brands of the competition help too. Which is similar to the consumer goods, I guess. Still, the touroperators, when trying to sing a contract for a travel to Russia, first search flights with known airlines (Lufthansa, BA, etc.), then Aeroflot, and just then – Siberian Airlines.
So, yes, I believe the people need time to appreciate, feel, and understand a tourist destination – its brand, its value. And the stats prove it – a decision to purchase a ticket is 90 days for an overseas destination. To buy a car, could be weeks or days only. Maybe that’s why people normally don’t associate the tourism product as being a FMCG. Hence, the branding and positioning is different, with the exceptions I mentioned already.