America has an image problem. Ever since the 9/11 attacks, our reputation around the world has changed from vacation paradise to unwelcoming land of visa hassles, strip searches and suspicious glares. No wonder that travel to the United States since 2001 has declined 8 percent despite a 30 percent increase in global travel.
Many Americans might feel safer knowing those foreigners are staying away. But when tens of millions of desired international travelers choose somewhere else to spend their money, our economy suffers. According to the Travel Industry Association, the decline since 2001 has cost the country $137 billion in visitor spending, $22 billion in tax receipts and 229,000 jobs.
With Dallas-Fort Worth and Houston serving as two of the nation’s top international hubs, this is a matter worth our legislators’ attention. According to the governor’s office, international travelers accounted for more than $4 billion in travel-related spending in Texas in 2006 and contributed hundreds of millions of dollars in state, local and federal taxes.
That’s why Congress needs to advance a bill pending on Capitol Hill that could boost international tourism and business travel here inject billions of dollars in foreign money back into the U.S. economy without costing taxpayers a dime.
The Travel Promotion Act, which has bipartisan House and Senate support, would establish a nonprofit company to raise America’s profile in 27 European and western Pacific countries whose citizens are exempt from obtaining short-term visas. It is designed to overcome fears about security procedures and to play up the advantages of U.S. travel, such as the added purchasing power resulting from a weak dollar.
The program would be funded through a $10 fee charged to visa-exempt travelers. It might seem strange to lure visitors by charging them a fee, but American travelers often pay such fees when traveling abroad. Voluntary private sector contributions would help supplement the corporation’s financing.
No one is portraying this as a magic pill to cure the travel industry’s economic woes, but the Travel Promotion Act is a sensible first step toward putting the welcome mat back on America’s doorstep.