Foreign tourism to USA down; Can the Travel Promotion Act save the day?


The U.S. Department of Commerce has announced that international visitation to the United States is down 10 percent in 2009 compared to the first six months of 2008.

Fewer travelers means less money for an American economy already battered by recession.

But can the new Travel Promotion Act get the United States to straighten up and fly right?

In the first six months of 2009, visitors spent $60 billion, down 15 percent from the same period in 2008. Many experts predicted things would pick up in the summer months, but numbers continued to dwindle in June, marking the eighth consecutive month of decreases in international visitors spending.

The U.S. isn’t the only country facing a decrease in tourism. During the first three months of the year, the number of visitors to the world’s top 50 tourist countries was down 8.1 percent from the same period in 2008. These numbers are a big change from 2008, when international travel actually rose 1.9 percent from the previous year.

For countries more heavily dependent on tourism, the hit comes especially hard. Tourist arrivals in Greece are down 26.3 percent, Portugal is down 21.3 percent, and Spain is down 16.3 percent. Many experts point to global recession and unfavorable exchange rates as reasons for the drop.

Tourist numbers for the U.S. have been most affected by a decrease in business travelers. International business visitors from the top foreign markets are down by as much as 20-30 percent.

Last week, the U.S. Senate passed the Travel Promotion Act, a bill designed to promote U.S. tourism and help explain U.S. security and entry policies.

The bill will establish a non-profit corporation funded through a matching program featuring up to $100 million in private sector contributions and a $10 “entry fee” from Visa Waiver Countries.

Supporters of the bill tout estimates that the program will generate $4 billion in new consumer spending and reduce the federal deficit by $425 million without any cost to taxpayers.

But the proposed entry fee has already ruffled a few feathers. The European Union has been quite vocal about its criticism, with John Brunton, the European Commission’s ambassador to Washington, being quoted as saying, “Only in Alice in Wonderland could a penalty be seen as promoting the activity on which it is imposed.”

However, few anticipate the fee will deter visitors from coming to the United States. “Other countries like Indonesia have used similar fees to fund marketing campaigns to great effect,” said Juergen Thomas Steinmetz of the Hawaii Tourism Association, which has publicly supported the proposed Travel Promotion Act.

At this point, it is unclear how the Travel Promotion Act will help specifically boost the struggling business travel numbers. The bill now heads to the House of Representatives where it is widely expected to pass.