White House clarifies it encourages business travel


White House press secretary Robert Gibbs said President Barack Obama was not discouraging travel when he said last month that businesses receiving federal bailout money should not be taking junkets. “The president believes it’s important to have a strong tourism industry and that it’s important that, as the president said earlier … that we shouldn’t retrench,” Gibbs said. “He would encourage people to travel.”

Obama made the comment while promoting his stimulus bill at Indiana town hall meeting. Asked about corporate largesse and the federal bailout, the president said: “you can’t get corporate jets, you can’t go take a trip to Las Vegas or go down to the Super Bowl on the taxpayer’s dime.”

Nevada officials have said the remark has discouraged travel among all companies skittish about being perceived as wasteful. At least three large banks recently have canceled meetings in Las Vegas. The impact was felt in a city already badly bruised by the recession. Tourism officials estimate cancellations have cost the region’s tourism-related businesses about US$132 million since October.

Gibbs said Thursday that the president was referring specifically to companies “that are getting large amounts of public funding. The president does have great concern with public money being used for that,” he said. Gibbs added that the president’s comment was “very clear,” and passed on a chance to express regret.

Tourism advocates, who met with Obama Wednesday, praised the White House statement. “These comments are extremely positive for the 1 million employees in this industry whose livelihood depends on business meetings and events,” said Geoff Freeman, senior vice president of the US Travel Association.

US Rep. Shelley Berkley, D-Nev., called the remarks “a boost to our tourism and convention industry.” Las Vegas Mayor Oscar Goodman, who once demanded an apology from the president, said no apology was necessary. “We got the message across that the president was not trying to disparage Las Vegas,” Goodman told The Associated Press.

Also Thursday, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid asked Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner to create guidelines on luxury spending for companies receiving bailout money through the Troubled Assets Relief Program. Reid said the guidelines would provide clarity for those business accepting the money and those who don’t. “It could also assure the broader business community that conventions and meetings are a routine and accepted part of running a successful enterprise in the country,” Reid wrote.