07/25/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Time for the U.S. to Promote Travel

Blogger's Note: the day this blog posted, the Senate invoked cloture and this Travel Promotion Act came-off the Senate Calendar docket. USTA and other travel trade groups will push to meet Sen. Majority leader concerns and continue to add more co-sponsors to the legislation.

The U.S. Senate agreed this week to consider legislation to help the listing travel and tourism industry ship right itself. Mandating a $10 fee on visas for international travelers, the Travel Promotion Act (TPA) offers travel government funding beyond the economic stimulus package.

The House of Representatives last year passed the first-of-its-kind Travel Promotion Act to create a corporate board with a specific target of bringing global visitors to the U.S. It's the type of Public-Private partnership that invests in a critical American industry sector - one that provides more jobs and better ROI that many others receiving TARP funds.

Missouri Congressman Roy Blunt joined Congressman Bill Delahunt to introduce the Travel Promotion Act of 2009, now waiting for the Senate Action.

Last month, the bill cleared a Senate subcommittee and enjoys broad, bipartisan support. Thursday morning last week, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, one of the bill's 22 co-sponsors, said he plans to get this bill through before the summer recess. If successful, the TPA could serve as a stimulus for the U.S. travel industry where business is down and layoffs are up. According to the Department of Commerce, the United States saw an 8 percent decline in overseas tourists from 2000 to 2007. It is estimated that again in 2009 there will be an 8 percent decrease in foreign visitors to the U.S.

TPA calls for the creation of a nonprofit "Corporation for Travel Promotion" to both promote travel and tourism to the United States and provide foreign visitors with information about entry requirements, documentation and fees required to enter the country. The U.S. Travel Association's Roger Dow, previously a high level Marriott executive, said the measure would "jump-start America's struggling economy and create thousands of new jobs" by "attracting millions of additional international travelers to the United States," and "end multibillion dollar losses in visitor spending."

The Act calls for the nonprofit group to devise campaigns to address perceptions that might limit travel to the United States (a huge PR campaign) and maximize economic and diplomatic benefits of travel here. It would create of a 15-member board to develop plans and budgets that could range initially between $10 million and $100 million. Funding of the corporation is to come from both private donations and a $10 user fee imposed on inbound international travelers who do not pay $131 for a visa to enter the U.S. (visa waiver countries).

Unlike most other developed nations, this country doesn't promote tourism to attract visitors. While the weakness of the dollar has prompted some tourism here, "2 million fewer overseas travelers visited the United States in 2007 than in 2000," Dow stated. The industry decline in overseas travel began after 9/11 and has cost America 46 million visitors, $140 billion in lost visitor spending and $23 billion in lost tax revenue, said Dow. I spoke with him at the Pow-Wow industry meeting in Miami last month. He said the TPA is his number on priority for the USTA and perhaps in his career.

"If I could have one thing, one piece of legislation to help our economic recovery," TPA would be it, he told me.

Although collecting a user fee is new for the United States, American travelers frequently pay fees - up to $160 in the United Kingdom - to fund other nation's promotion programs

The new bill, S. 1661 is sponsored by Senators Byron Dorgan, and co-sponsored by a bipartisan group of more than 40 Senators, including Senators Biden, Coleman, Leahy, Schumer, Feinstein and Bond. The bill was approved by the Senate Commerce Committee and awaits floor action by the full Senate.

The Fairfax County region and international travel from Dulles Airport has also taken a hit locally. We asked a few of the execs trying to recoup lost jobs and travel/tourism dollars to respond to the federal TPA.

"The Travel Promotion Act is a self-funding, public - private partnership that will benefit our region substantially," said Mark G. Carrier, Senior Vice President of the B. F. Saul Company Hotel Division and owner ofl Tyson's Corner, Virginia area properties. He is also Chairman of Visit Fairfax. (The bill) "is an opportunity to communicate a positive message about our country and to put-out the welcome mat for our neighbors from foreign lands. Increased travel brings (global) understanding and helps create employment throughout the tourism industry."

According to the Fairfax County initiative "Visit Fairfax":

"The Travel Promotion Act is indeed a vital and critical need for the United States to regain its place internationally to tell our story and promote travel to this country," said Barry Biggar CEO and President of the Fairfax County Convention and Visitor's Bureau. "For too many years now the United States has been a void in the International arena. In order to remain competitive with the world's offerings and make sure that our country is top of mind for travelers from abroad, and to change perception and attitude, we need a consistent and constant presence in those marketplaces. This Travel Promotion Act is critical for our future, cost the government and our citizens virtually nothing, and will result in increased high yield International travel resulting in significant benefits."

Not everyone agrees that using government stimulation to focus on a strong industry sector in need of help is the right use of visa tariffs. The Heritage Foundation has opposed this measure:

"The U.S. Senate will soon vote on the Travel Promotion Act of 2009, which would create a government-run U.S. tourism advertising campaign funded by taxes on international visitors," said the foundation press release. "Creating a tax on international visitors is not the right way to stimulate the tourism industry. The economic downturn has not been limited to the United States; pocketbooks worldwide are also feeling the crunch. Making travel to the U.S. more expensive will likely encourage would-be tourists to stay at home or spend their money on a trip to another country. To truly promote the tourism industry, Congress should leave travel promotion to the private sector and focus instead on making travel easier, safer, and more streamlined, thereby expanding the opportunities for visitors to travel to the United States."

The tourism industry is the second-largest service industry in the U.S., and Heritage admits "it has been badly bruised by the current economic downturn."