Come visit the U.S. - and create jobs!
By Tami Luhby, senior writer
February 25, 2010: 9:31 PM ET
NEW YORK (CNNMoney.com) -- Next up on the jobs-creation agenda: Lure more foreign travelers to the United States.
The Senate on Thursday approved -- and sent to President Obama for his signature -- the Travel Promotion Act, which creates a nonprofit corporation to market overseas visits to United States. The venture will be funded by a $10 fee on foreign travelers and up to $100 million from the tourism industry.
America is one of the few developed countries that doesn't market itself abroad, according to industry experts, though states, resorts, hotel chains and attractions certainly promote themselves.
Marketing campaigns funded by the act could attract an additional 1.6 million international visitors a year, generating $4 billion in spending and creating 40,000 jobs, according to consulting firm Oxford Economics, which has conducted research on behalf of the U.S. Travel Association, a trade group.
"We're the only modern nation that doesn't advertise ourselves," Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., said Monday as he laid out his plan to spur employment. "Every state in the union, their No. 1 or No. 2 ... economic driver is tourism."
The act would create a public-private venture, similar to a state or city visitors' bureau, that would be run by an 11-member board of industry representatives appointed by the Commerce Secretary.
The $10 fee would be charged only to those visiting from the 35 countries that don't need visas to enter the United States. These include most European countries, as well as Japan, Australia and South Korea.
The fee, which would be charged only once every two years, would be collected when these travelers apply for pre-authorization to come to the United States.
In addition to marketing America as a destination, the venture would provide information on entry requirements and counter misperceptions of the nation's travel policies, according to the legislation. Its operations would be reviewed by the Commerce Secretary, the U.S. Comptroller General and Congress.
Co-sponsored by Sens. John Ensign, R-Nev., and Byron Dorgan, D-N.D., the bill previously passed the House of Representatives and enjoyed bipartisan support in the Senate, where it is also expected to be approved. President Obama touted it in a visit to tourism-dependent Nevada earlier this month.
Eager to give their tourism industries a boost, state and local officials have praised the effort. It has 53 co-sponsors in the Senate.
But not everyone has gotten on board. Sen. Jim DeMint, R-S.C., said creating what he called a "government tourism advertising agency" is unnecessary.
"The American travel industry already spends billions every year on advertising with tens of millions focused on international marketing," he wrote in an op-ed piece. "The purpose of the Travel Promotion Act is to subsidize that advertising."
The U.S. Travel Association said that foreign visitors view America's visa and entry process as difficult and unwelcoming. In its view, an advertising campaign to counter that perception will only succeed if it comes with government backing.
Though surveys show that many foreigners view the United States as a desirable place to vacation, fewer are coming here, said Adam Sacks, managing director of Tourism Economics, a subsidiary of Oxford Economics.
"When it comes down to decisions, there are a lot of other destinations that are top of mind," Sacks said.
Overseas travel to the U.S. is down 9% since 2000, said Roger Dow, the travel association's chief executive.
That has hurt the labor-intensive tourism sector, which has lost 441,000 jobs in the last decade, he said. One in eight Americans benefits from the travel industry, the association estimates, either by working directly for a hotel, rental car agency or the like or by being on the payroll of a supplier, such as a taxi service.
"If more people come to the U.S., more Americans work," Dow said.
The bill comes on the heels of a $15 billion jobs measure passed Wednesday by the Senate. Reid said he plans to introduce a string of employment initiatives in coming days.