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To reclaim its share of the growing international travel market, the United States needs to become more welcoming, invest in people and technology to balance security and hospitality, and change perceptions about the country, top travel executives said last week as they began lobbying Congress and the travel industry for a national tourism policy.
One goal is to reverse the 10 percent reduction between 2004 and 2005 in incoming business travelers to the United States, according to a World Travel Market study that said Europe welcomed 8 percent more business travelers in the same timeframe.
Leaders speaking last week called for a 21st Century visa system and modernization of ports of entry, including airports, where international travelers should be processed within 30 minutes. The issues, economic consequences and $300 million worth of solutions were contained in a "Blueprint to Discover America" presented to a Senate Commerce, Science & Transportation committee hearing on promoting travel to America.
The proposals call for development of a self-funding, international registered traveler program as one means to significantly speed and secure the nation's major entry ports. Another component of the plan is an option to fund the cost of all the initiatives with a $5 exit fee, similar to those of other countries.
"Security and travel facilitation are not mutually exclusive," Discover America Partnership executive director Geoff Freeman told The Transnational. "We're trying to strike the right balance between secure borders and tourism."
Since 11 Sept 2001, government agencies have dictated travel policies. "Overseas travel to the U.S. has fallen 17 percent since 2001, at a cost of $94 billion in visitor spending, $16 billion in tax receipts and nearly 200,000 American jobs," the report stated. "More importantly, our national reputation has suffered as a direct result of policies and perceptions that discourage travel to the U.S." From a public diplomacy perspective, "travel to the U.S. may be the greatest tool America has in its effort to win hearts and minds around the world," according to the report.
Enlisting influential policymakers such as former Secretary of Homeland Security Tom Ridge and Bush Administration advisor and Under Secretary, Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs Karen Hughes, as well as such travel business leaders as J.W. Marriott, August Busch, Stevan Porter of Intercontinental Hotels, Jay Rasulo of Disney, the Travel Business Roundtable's Jonathan Tisch and the Travel Industry Association's Roger Dow, the partnership is trying to underscore that the need for a national tourism strategy isn't just about tourism, but about the economy, security and diplomacy, Freeman said.
Following the hearings last week, Sens. Byron Dorgan (D-ND), Daniel Inouye (D-HI) and Ted Stevens (R-AK) promised to develop legislation from the blueprint. The Discover America Partnership is lining up an "interested cadre" of representatives who can push legislation through the U.S. House of Representatives, Freeman added.
Though the partnership officially launched last September by TIA, TBR, other associations and travel companies, cries for a national policy on tourism have been growing since 2003 when the first funding for such a program since 1997 was lost due to a lack of policy.
The blueprint addresses three major issues--visa, entry and promotions--and recommends measures, including funding options, to improve each. The blueprint urges the U.S. to speed visa applications by using videoconferencing, Internet applications, trusted third parties or other flexible interview options where travel distances are excessive and force travelers to make a trip just to get permission to visit the U.S.; strengthen and expand the visa waiver program; use biometric scanning to confirm departures; create the 2.0 version of US-Visit by implementing 10 fingerprint scans, collecting biometric information, improving information sharing between governments and creating an exit tracking system.
"Hurdles in the visa process" cost U.S. businesses $30 billion between 2002 and 2004, according to the National Foreign Trade Council, TBR chairman Jonathan Tisch testified at the Senate hearing.
The plan also calls for America to both modernize and secure ports of entry by processing all international travelers in 30 minutes or less, turn America's top inbound airports into world models and leverage private sector expertise to improve customer service. "More than half of overseas visitors to the United States arrive at one of six airports: New York's JFK, Miami, Los Angeles, Honolulu, Newark or Chicago [O'Hare]."
The plan also calls for implementation of an international registered traveler program for frequent fliers. "An aggressive commitment to an IRT program would relieve some of the burden on [U.S. Customs and Border Protection] officers, provide more information about travelers to the government and present a welcoming image abroad." The partnership estimated $20 million in start-up costs for such a program, but said it would be self-funding after start-up from member fees.
But the United States also needs to alter perceptions about America to make foreigners want to visit. That, Freeman said, would likely require a promotional campaign. And as global tourism expands, the stakes grow. Over the past 14 years, the decline in international tourism to the United States has cost the country more than $286 billion. Global tourism grew 52 percent during this same period. As a travel destination, America ranks third after France and Spain, and is the only industrialized nation without a coordinated travel promotion program.
The partnership is trying to rally support from companies like ExxonMobil, which has moved meetings outside the United States to make it easier for international participants to attend, Freeman said.
To fund its blueprint, the partnership suggests three options: implementation of a $5 exit fee per traveler, tax credit bonds and/or a tax on travelers from countries participating in the visa waiver program. Based on U.S. Department of Commerce estimates of 54 million visitors to the U.S. in 2007, the exit fee tax would generate in excess of $250 million, the report stated. Freeman said supporters are certainly open to other funding suggestions. The report also suggested a new federally sponsored, non-profit corporation, the Discover America Partnership Corporation, which would be eligible to access federal funds from appropriations or taxes.
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