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Floridians are worried as US losing global battle for international tourists

Jul 08, 2009

Americans are losing the worldwide competition for international tourists and their money.

While world travelers shun the United States to trek elsewhere, Florida officials fret that the state's tourism economy is losing millions of dollars and thousands of jobs. International travelers, including Canadians, comprise only about a tenth of Florida visitors, but they stay longer and spend more money than domestic tourists.

Eager to get a bigger share of this business, tourism leaders are lobbying for passage of the Travel Promotion Act, a bill in Congress designed to launch U.S. advertising campaigns around the world, ease the process of getting into this country and show a more welcoming face to foreigners.

"In the post- 9/11 world, we have to walk that fine line between security and making things so complicated and cumbersome that people don't want to come here," said Sen. Mel Martinez, R-Fla.

The legislation stands an excellent chance of passage.

Forty-eight senators are co-sponsors, meaning they support the bill strongly enough to attach their names to it. Approval has been delayed because of unrelated and controversial amendments. If these barriers are cleared, the Senate is expected to pass the bill, with the House quick to follow.

The bill is designed to pay for itself by charging each foreign visitor $10, generating up to $100 million a year. The money would be matched by private donations from the travel industry, including free services such as ads and brochures.

It would mean charging people to come here, but backers say overseas travelers who spend thousands of dollars would hardly notice the $10 fee.

The money would go for such things as promotional videos to be shown at trade shows, U.S. embassies and on airlines. Disney Corp. produced a sample video that depicts a diverse montage of Americans with smiling faces in scenic places all around the country.

Amid the worldwide recession, overseas travel to Florida dropped by 13 percent in the first three months of this year compared to the same period last year, according to Visit Florida, the state's tourism marketing arm.

Fewer visitors means a loss of income and tax receipts.

Overseas travelers spent an average of $1,886 per person while in Florida in 2007, according to Visit Florida. Domestic travelers spent an average of $864. "These are very tough times for this industry," said Nicki Grossman, president and CEO of the Greater Fort Lauderdale Convention & Visitors Bureau. "But the business is still there. People still want to travel."

The Travel Promotion Act, she said, would send a message of welcome.

"That's been sorely missing in the international marketplace," Grossman said. "There is a sense that the United States doesn't care if they come or not." The perception began after the 2001 terrorist attacks when U.S. officials imposed new visa requirements, creating delays and a tangle of paperwork to get permission to come here.

Overseas visits to Florida, not counting Canadians and Mexicans, dropped from 6 million in 2000 to 4.4 million in 2002, before gradually rising to 4.7 million in 2007 and 2008. Canadian travel has remained healthy, with 2.8 million visits to Florida last year, up from 2 million in 2000.

Overseas visits nationwide followed a similar pattern, leaving this country with a decreasing share of international tourism.

The U.S. Travel Association says travelers worldwide made 48 million more "long-haul" trips in 2008 compared to 2000. But this country received 633,000 fewer such visits.

While the United States as a whole makes little attempt to lure foreign travelers, other nations bombard them with advertisements.

Greece spends about $151 million a year to promote itself. China spends $60 million. Thailand spends $32 million.

Some local communities provide a model for how to compete abroad. Greater Fort Lauderdale promoters spend about $1.5 million a year, much of it overseas through offices in Argentina, Colombia, Britain and Germany. The marketing agents attend trade shows and contact travel agencies and tour operators.

During colder months in Great Britain, agents rolled out a "Beachmobile," a glass-encased vehicle depicting a beach scene complete with sand, mannequins and a lifeguard stand. The Beachmobile rolled around the streets of major cities, inviting Britons to come to sunny Fort Lauderdale.

South Florida sells itself, especially in summer months, as a relatively cheap vacation spot, especially when the dollar is weak, giving foreigners more buying power. Grossman said foreign tourists come mainly for beaches and shopping malls, especially Sawgrass Mills Mall.

Palm Beach County struggles to attract foreign visitors who fly into other parts of Florida, a task made more difficult by the recession.

"In our case, Palm Beach County has the image of an upscale resort destination. That has been our big challenge," said Jorge Pesquera, president and CEO of the Palm Beach County Convention and Visitors Bureau.

U.S. promotions and easier entry would help, he said.

"We are one of the few developed countries in the world that does not have a national policy for tourism promotion," Pesquera said. "Other countries are extremely aggressive in marketing themselves. That's why we need to get more competitive."

Floridians are worried as US losing global battle for international tourists
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