WASHINGTON – As the United States gears up for a 100-million-dollar effort to boost tourism, doubts remain whether the initiative can live up to its promise and overcome a tarnished US image abroad.
A law signed March 4 by President Barack Obama creates a Corporation for Travel Promotion, modeled after tourism boards in other countries and US states.
Backers say the program, which may take from six months to two years to put into service, will help establish a national “brand” image for the United States, offer more information and draw more global tourism and its economic benefits.
The program is expected to spend 100 million dollars a year, funded with private sector contributions and a 10-dollar fee on foreign travelers who do not require a visa.
No direct US taxpayer money will be used.
The new fee is a main point of contention for critics of the plan who argue that the United States does not need a flashy marketing campaign and that visitors may be discouraged by new red tape.
“It’s not as if people are unaware of the United States,” said Steve Lott, spokesman for the International Air Transport Association, a trade group representing major global airlines.
The new fee, said Lott, “is essentially a tourism tax, and whether it’s the United States or any other country we generally have concerns about tourism taxes… Most travelers around the world are well aware of what the United States offers for tourists.”
IATA told Congress during debate on the measure that it would likely reduce rather than increase the number of overseas visitors to the US.
But Geoff Freeman, senior vice president at the US Travel Association, an industry group that spearheaded the legislation, said passage of program “is the most significant message in the post-9/11 world from the US government that we are going to invest in welcoming more visitors.”
The new effort, he said, “is less about highlighting the Statue of Liberty and the Golden Gate Bridge and more about letting people around the world that we want their business.”
Freeman said the program must be accompanied by an effort to deal with the perception and reality of the US entry system — tough security checks and searches, long lines and a generally unfriendly welcome process.
“The demand for travel to the US is quite high,” he said. “Where we suffer is the perception that the US is not as welcoming as it once was.”
According to the travel association, the number of overseas visitors to the United States has declined steadily in the past decade and was 2.4 million fewer than in 2000.
Backers say the effort will create some 40,000 US jobs and bring in far more tax receipts than the cost of the program.
An Oxford Economics study prepared for the travel association found that the return for travel promotion spending ranged from 13 to one in Britain to 35 to one in Canada.
The study suggested that a well-executed program could produce a four-billion-dollar economic impact and boost federal tax coffers by 321 million dollars.
Yet some argue the effort could backfire, and that other countries may respond with their own fees on Americans, diminishing the move toward visa-free travel to many countries.
Kasper Zeuthen, a European Union embassy spokesman in Washington, said the program “is inconsistent with the often repeated commitment of the US to facilitate transatlantic mobility in a secure environment.”
The new fee imposed, he said “risks being perceived as a visa fee in disguise” and “could reopen the discussion” on visa-free travel between EU countries and the US.
But Freeman of the travel association said European countries have many fees of their own on foreign travelers but that the fees are hidden in the form of taxes on airline tickets or other items.
“The difference here is that this fee is transparent,” he said.
“If other countries are committed to removing all fees on travelers, we would welcome that. I think those countries are worried that when America gets into the game and starts marketing, we are going to steal market share.”