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Benjamin Spillman

U.S. hospitality leaders call for plan to attract more overseas visitors

31 March 2008

LAS VEGAS, Nevada -- With the American economy sliding toward recession, hospitality industry leaders want lawmakers to launch an initiative they say would deliver more tourists to the United States.

If approved, the program would use fees from foreign visitors to create a $200 million national marketing campaign, the first of its kind for America but a long-used tactic by other countries to attract tourists.

The idea is to develop a unified marketing pitch to attract tourists to America and undo years of bad press in foreign markets that emphasizes hassles, delays and rudeness international guests face.

America's reputation as a friendly place to travel has been in free fall since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks resulting in the loss of 46 million visitors and 250,000 hospitality jobs despite a weak dollar that makes travel to the United States cheaper than ever.

"We should be blowing the doors off," said Roger Dow, president and CEO of the Travel Industry Association, a trade group for the $740 billion hospitality business. "Every developed country in the world spends money promoting travel and tourism. We spend zero."

Dow's remarks come as the industry seeks support in Congress for the Travel Promotion Act.

About 171 members of the House of Representatives and 39 senators have already endorsed the bill. Two of Nevada's three representatives and two senators are among the supporters, according to the TIA. Bill supporters are working to add Rep. Dean Heller, R-Reno, to the fold soon.

Under the legislation, the government would tack $10 onto the $25 fee foreign visitors with visa waiver privileges pay to enter the United States.

The fee would raise about $100 million annually. The travel industry would contribute another $100 million. China spends roughly $300 million annually on marketing and New Zealand spends $175 million, according to the TIA.

The bill would also create a committee of 16 people, 14 from the private sector and two from government, to oversee the money and devise strategies to market America to foreigners.

"It is a bunch of common-sense steps that could really make a difference, and a little bit of cash," Dow said.

In addition to the Travel Promotion Act, the TIA supports adding countries such as South Korea and Brazil to America's visa-waiver program. Their addition would reduce the amount of time it takes people in those countries to acquire travel visas.

In some cases acquiring a visa takes people more than three months and requires a trip across their home countries for interviews with American officials.

The restrictions hamper travel. Lifting them in South Korea, for example, could double the number of South Koreans who visit the United States to 1.6 million annually. South Korea is the only nation without visa waiver privileges among the top five source markets for Las Vegas.

"There is no reason you can't have great security ... and still treat people with respect and dignity," Dow said.

The proposed campaign wouldn't be designed to solicit visitors to Las Vegas or any specific destination in the United States; that would remain the responsibility of private companies and local interests such as the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority.

Instead, the campaign would be used to offset criticism of American travel hassles in the foreign press and increase the nation's presence at global hospitality trade shows.
to nations. But the United States didn't bother to try to acquire it.

"That was an extreme stretch," Bommarito said of a state leapfrogging one of the most powerful governments on Earth for a license. "We were able to convince them to give us the U.S. license."

America's approach also leaves it vulnerable to criticism in the foreign press.

Newspapers, especially in Europe, often blare headlines blasting America for being hostile to visitors. Articles detail run-ins with surly customs officials, cumbersome paperwork and long lines as hassles that come with a trip to America.

"The international press is beating us like a drum," Dow said. "We have no money as a country to even answer this stuff. We just take it."