The U.S. Senate on 10 September passed the Travel Promotion Act "to communicate United States entry policies and otherwise promote leisure, business, and scholarly travel." To help accomplish that task, U.S. officials would levy on many foreign visitors a $10 fee. The European Commission delegation to the United States stated its opposition, calling the legislation "questionable--if not paradoxical." A companion bill now is in committee in the U.S. House of Representatives.
The House in 2008 passed a similar billbut the Senate failed to do so before Congress adjourned at the end of the year. The 2009 Senate version calls for a nonprofit corporation to spread information regarding inbound travel to the United States and an Office of Travel Promotion within the U.S. Department of Commerce.
The legislation also would establish within the U.S. Department of Treasury the Travel Promotion Fund, supported by private-sector contributions (including voluntary funds provided by tourism companies), matching federal contributions and initial funding of no more than $10 million from Treasury, in addition to the $10 fee imposed on foreign visitors.
European Commission Opposes Fee
The proposed legislation calls for collection of that fee starting "no later than 30 September." According to the U.S. Travel Association, the $10 fee would be imposed "on foreign travelers who do not pay $131 for a visa to enter the United States. The fee is collected once every two years in conjunction with the U.S. Department of Homeland Security's Electronic System for Travel Authorization."
Ambassador John Bruton, head of the European Commission delegation to the United States, cited several reasons for objecting to the proposed fee. "The proposed $10 penalty for entering the United States is being sold as a 'tourist promotion' measure--but only in Alice in Wonderland could a penalty be seen as promoting the activity on which it is imposed," according to Bruton's 9 September statement.
He also described the fee as "discriminatory," since it does not apply to returning U.S. citizens or foreigners paying for a visa to enter the United States. As such, the fee would apply only to those travelers who are citizens of countries enrolled in the U.S. Visa Waiver Program. [First developed in 1986, VWP allows citizens of 35 participating countries to travel to the United States without a visa. According to DHS, one objective of the program is "eliminating unnecessary barriers to travel." Current participants include Andorra, Australia, Austria, Belgium, Brunei, Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, Hungary, Iceland, Ireland, Italy, Japan, Latvia, Liechtenstein, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Malta, Monaco, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Portugal, San Marino, Singapore, Slovakia, Slovenia, South Korea, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland and the United Kingdom.]
"This measure increases the cost of flying across the Atlantic, and it might actually result in fewer, not more, travelers coming to the United States," Bruton stated. He described the bill as "a step backward in our joint endeavor toward transatlantic mobility."
Since 12 January, the United States has required that VWP travelers use the DHS ESTA process, another point with which Bruton took issue. "Legally, the European Commission would also have to re-examine if ESTA can be considered as a visa in disguise, with all the potentially negative implications on reciprocal visa-free travel between the European Union and the United States that this would entail," he cautioned. "Linking travel promotion with national security is a dangerous precedent. ESTA's function is to vet travelers against watch lists, not to collect revenue for the travel industry."
The Nonprofit Corporation
The nonprofit corporation established by the Travel Promotion Act would have an 11-member board of directors--appointed by the Secretary of Commerce--including representatives from the travel distribution services, air transportation, hotel, restaurant, small business/retail/associations, recreation/attractions and intercity rail sectors. Officials from city convention and visitors' bureaus and state tourism offices also would be represented.
Among other things, the group would direct efforts to "identify, counter and correct misperceptions regarding United States entry policies around the world," and "provide useful information" related to "entry requirements, required documentation, fees and processes, and information concerning declared public health emergencies to prospective travelers, travel agents, tour operators, meeting planners, foreign governments, travel media and other international stakeholders."
The corporation also is intended to "maximize the economic and diplomatic benefits of travel to the United States by promoting the United States of America to world travelers through the use of, but not limited to, all forms of advertising, outreach to trade shows and other appropriate promotional activities." It would be required to develop and maintain a publicly accessible Web site.
The Office of Travel Promotion
A newly created Office of Travel Promotion within the Commerce Department would work with the nonprofit corporation. It would specifically be tasked with disseminating information on U.S. entry requirements; supporting state, regional and private-sector travel promotion initiatives; enhancing visitor entry and departure "through the use of advertising, signage and customer service;" collecting state-by-state data on inbound foreign visitors; and ensuring international visitors "are generally welcomed with accurate information and in an inviting manner."
Meanwhile, the legislation would expand the remit of the Commerce Department's existing Office of Travel and Tourism Industries. For example, that office would increase the length of and number of respondents to an inbound air traveler survey as part of "research and development activities in connection with the promotion of international travel to the United States."
According to USTA, the legislation--should it be approved by the House--would create 40,000 U.S. jobs and increase consumer spending by $4 billion. USTA CEO Roger Dow said the legislation would help the United States "strengthen its image in the world as visitors leave with an improved perception of our country and her people."
The Senate approved the Travel Promotion Act by a 79-19 vote.