|By Benjamin Spillman, Las Vegas
Review-JournalMcClatchy-Tribune Regional News
Mar. 31, 2008 - With the American economy sliding toward recession, hospitality industry leaders want lawmakers to launch an initiative they say would deliver more tourists to the United States.
If approved, the program would use fees from foreign visitors to create a $200 million national marketing campaign, the first of its kind for America but a long-used tactic by other countries to attract tourists.
The idea is to develop a unified marketing pitch to attract tourists to America and undo years of bad press in foreign markets that emphasizes hassles, delays and rudeness international guests face.
America's reputation as a friendly place to travel has been in free fall since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks resulting in the loss of 46 million visitors and 250,000 hospitality jobs despite a weak dollar that makes travel to the United States cheaper than ever.
"We should be blowing the doors off," said Roger Dow, president and CEO of the Travel Industry Association, a trade group for the $740 billion hospitality business. "Every developed country in the world spends money promoting travel and tourism. We spend zero."
Dow's remarks come as the industry seeks support in Congress for the Travel Promotion Act.
About 171 members of the House of Representatives and 39 senators have already endorsed the bill. Two of Nevada's three representatives and two senators are among the supporters, according to the TIA. Bill supporters are working to add Rep. Dean Heller, R-Reno, to the fold soon.
Under the legislation, the government would tack $10 onto the $25 fee foreign visitors with visa waiver privileges pay to enter the United States.
The fee would raise about $100 million annually. The travel industry would contribute another $100 million. China spends roughly $300 million annually on marketing and New Zealand spends $175 million, according to the TIA.
The bill would also create a committee of 16 people, 14 from the private sector and two from government, to oversee the money and devise strategies to market America to foreigners.
"It is a bunch of common-sense steps that could really make a difference, and a little bit of cash," Dow said.
In addition to the Travel Promotion Act, the TIA supports adding countries such as South Korea and Brazil to America's visa-waiver program. Their addition would reduce the amount of time it takes people in those countries to acquire travel visas.
In some cases acquiring a visa takes people more than three months and requires a trip across their home countries for interviews with American officials.
The restrictions hamper travel. Lifting them in South Korea, for example, could double the number of South Koreans who visit the United States to 1.6 million annually. South Korea is the only nation without visa waiver privileges among the top five source markets for Las Vegas.
"There is no reason you can't have great security ... and still treat people with respect and dignity," Dow said.
The proposed campaign wouldn't be designed to solicit visitors to Las Vegas or any specific destination in the United States; that would remain the responsibility of private companies and local interests such as the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority.
Instead, the campaign would be used to offset criticism of American travel hassles in the foreign press and increase the nation's presence at global hospitality trade shows.
The TIA argues the plan would help reverse an eight-year overseas United States visitation decline of about 2 million people, even though long-haul international travel is up by 35 million people globally during that same span.
In Las Vegas, tourism boosters want to increase the share of visitors from foreign sources from 13 percent to 15 percent by 2010.
Nationally, overseas visitation is down 17 percent since the terrorist attacks but increased visitation from Canada and Mexico has boosted international tourism numbers back to pre-Sept. 11 levels. North American tourists, however, don't spend as much or stay as long as guests from overseas.
"The dollar is weaker, we should have an influx," said Charles Bowling, executive vice president for sales and marketing for MGM Mirage, which has 10 resorts on the Strip including MGM Grand and Bellagio. "We have to be able to increase the international visitation."
But even as Las Vegas boosters dedicate a big chunk of a five-year, $600 million overall marketing plan to attracting foreign guests, people behind the national effort face skimpy budgets and hostile receptions.
Bruce Bommarito, a former executive director of the Nevada Commission on Tourism who now works for TIA, described a recent hospitality trade show in Berlin.
He said the Americans did the best they could to attract attention with small displays and meager budgets. But their pitch was repeatedly drowned out, oftentimes by much smaller and less-developed countries.
"You could walk over to Iran and Palestine and Syria, they have these massive built out pavilions to draw people into their countries," Bommarito said. "That does put you at a disadvantage. On occasion it comes across as arrogance."
Evidence of the American government's lackadaisical approach was apparent during Bommarito's tenure in Nevada. The Silver State, one of the least populated states in the country, managed to snag a license to promote itself in China.
Typically, the Chinese government grants the licenses to nations. But the United States didn't bother to try to acquire it.
"That was an extreme stretch," Bommarito said of a state leapfrogging one of the most powerful governments on Earth for a license. "We were able to convince them to give us the U.S. license."
America's approach also leaves it vulnerable to criticism in the foreign press.
Newspapers, especially in Europe, often blare headlines blasting America for being hostile to visitors. Articles detail run-ins with surly customs officials, cumbersome paperwork and long lines as hassles that come with a trip to America.
"The international press is beating us like a drum," Dow said. "We have no money as a country to even answer this stuff. We just take it."
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