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Benjamin Spillman

Campaign 2008: Tourism gets push in election

22 August 2008

LAS VEGAS, Nevada -- The lobbying arm of the nation's $740 billion travel industry will use Las Vegas and Orlando, Fla., to gain a stronger foothold in the presidential race.

Officials from the Travel Industry Association announced Thursday they would spend nearly $500,000 to engage voters in Nevada and Florida, two important swing states in the campaign, which are also economically dependent on the travel industry.

The outreach, mostly composed of print advertising, will provide voters with scorecards to track how Democratic candidate Barack Obama and Republican candidate John McCain intend to reverse a travel decline that started in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, and lately has been aggravated by rising oil prices and waning consumer confidence.

The confluence of a close election and anxiety over the economy, especially in places such as Las Vegas, prompted the industry group to jump into the presidential fray.

"In each media market the presidential race is too close to call," said Mike Murphy, a prominent Republican strategist working on the travel campaign.

"The voters in these markets are very concerned," he added.

Although Murphy is known primarily for working with Republicans, officials from the Travel Industry Association stressed the campaign is bipartisan.

The idea is to urge candidates to address issues that have contributed to a travel decline the industry group said has cost the American economy $140 billion in spending and 230,000 tourism jobs since 2000. The slowdown in international visitation to America comes despite a global increase in travel, something the industry says is reflective of government policies that make it inconvenient and uncomfortable for foreigners to visit the United States.

"It is high time the candidates really address this," said Roger Dow, president and chief executive officer of the Travel Industry Association.

Hassles with customs and homeland security issues and delays in the visa process are blamed for lagging visitation numbers by foreign tourists.

"They are afraid they are going to let (Osama) bin Laden in; sometimes they are less than pleasant," said Rep. Jon Porter, R-Nev.

Porter said reports of incidents in which airport security officers search the contents of laptop computers have the potential to dissuade visitation to the United states.

"If that is happening, it has to stop," Porter said. "We want to make the experience comfortable for traveling."

Also, the United States doesn't have a coordinated advertising campaign to attract tourists. The travel group is behind a bill that would raise $200 million annually from private and public sources to create a marketing campaign to promote the United States abroad.

The latest outreach coincides with a poll the association conducted in Nevada and Florida to gauge voters' knowledge and opinions on travel and the presidential race.

The Nevada poll was taken in the Las Vegas media market, an area that comprises Las Vegas, Clark County and some surrounding communities.

It showed Obama with a five-point lead over McCain, 42 to 38 percent with 19 percent of those polled undecided.

According to the travel industry poll, 95 percent of people who responded said travel and tourism are important to the state's economy.

"You have got a rip-snorting race there," Murphy said. "It is in the interest of both candidates to go after these voters hook, line and sinker."

The campaign is designed to peak during the Democratic and Republican conventions.