|By Jason Garcia, The Orlando Sentinel,
Fla.McClatchy-Tribune Regional News
Oct. 29, 2008 - --Advertising - It's been called the tourism lobby's Holy Grail: a national advertising campaign paid for by the federal government.
The "Travel Promotion Act" is currently before Congress. It would allow the federal government to charge travelers from certain overseas countries, including the United Kingdom, Germany and Japan, a $10 fee. The money collected -- an estimated $100 million a year -- would be spent on marketing to lure international travelers to the U.S.
Boosters say the plan would help the economy by increasing the number of overseas travelers. They also say it would help restore America's reputation abroad, as people who have vacationed here are more likely to view the country fondly.
Opponents argue that the government has no business underwriting something that the tourism industry should be paying for itself.
Obama is a co-sponsor of the Travel Promotion Act in the U.S. Senate. "If we're advertising, and it's bringing in more revenue than if we weren't advertising, then we should do it," he said during a recent interview with the Orlando Sentinel.
McCain, however, declined to co-sponsor the plan, despite personal pleas from travel executives. "I, frankly, think that we have ways of promoting the greatness and beauty of the United States without as much federal government as maybe you would like to see," the Arizona senator told a meeting of Central Florida business leaders earlier this year.
Few issues have the potential to alter the landscape of Orlando tourism more than a measure in Congress that would make it much easier for workers to organize into unions.
The plan, called the Employee Free Choice Act, would allow workers to form unions once they collected signed pledge cards from a majority of those in a workplace. Right now, employers can insist on secret-ballot elections. Businesses say that ensures workers have the freedom to decide without pressure from their colleagues, but employees say that often results in employer-led intimidation campaigns.
Eric Clinton, president of Unite Here Local 362, which represents workers at Walt Disney World and Orlando International Airport, said the change would spur union efforts at Universal Orlando, SeaWorld Orlando and various International Drive resorts. There are about 30,000 union workers in Central Florida, Clinton said, "but there's the potential for there to be hundreds of thousands in the tourism industry alone."
Joseph McInerney, president of the American Hotel & Lodging Association, once likened the plan to deciding presidential elections based on the number of people who register to vote. "It's simply un-American," McInerney said.
The Employee Free Choice Act fell nine votes short of passing in the Senate last year. Obama voted for it and has said that, as president, he would sign it into law.
McCain voted against the bill and has made it clear he would veto it. Last year, McCain said Congress must stop "this assault on democracy from becoming law."
The minimum wage has long been particularly important in the tourism industry, which is filled with low-paying jobs. During the successful 2004 campaign to raise Florida's minimum wage, Disney World and Busch Entertainment Corp. -- along with scores of restaurants, retailers and other businesses -- spent lavishly in an attempt to defeat it.
Florida's minimum wage -- which, unlike the national standard, rises automatically with inflation -- will be $7.21 an hour on Jan. 1.
Obama says he wants to increase the national minimum wage to $9.50 an hour within three years, and tie it to inflation.
McCain has repeatedly voted against efforts to raise the minimum wage, though the Republican has said in interviews that he voted against those bills because they were attached to unrelated spending initiatives. McCain's campaign says he supported a recent increase to the federal minimum wage, though "only after the legislation included billions in tax incentives for small business." McCain opposes linking the minimum wage to inflation.
There are fewer distinctions between McCain and Obama on other top issues. For instance, both have expressed qualified support for allowing visitors from more nations -- such as Greece and Brazil -- to travel to the United States without visas.
Obama, whose home state of Illinois has a substantial Polish-American population, has called for including Poland in the Visa Waiver Program along with other countries that "have demonstrated a willingness to cooperate with the U.S. in achieving counterterrorism goals." McCain's campaign says the Arizona senator wants to ensure that any countries added to the waiver program "meet minimum requirements for security and returning home after their stay."
Both men support issuing more H-2B visas to temporary international workers, which many tourism businesses rely on during peak seasons.
Each candidate vows to support modernization of the country's outdated and delay-plagued air-traffic control system -- though neither has said how his administration would pay the multibillion-dollar price tag.
John McCain and Barack Obama have spent almost no time talking about how their administration would help Central Florida's key industry: tourism. "It's been real frustrating," Gatorland President Mark McHugh said about the candidates' lack of attention to an industry that's the backbone of Central Florida's economy, even as it shows signs of a slowdown in hotels, airlines, time shares and more. "I don't think it's on their radar screens."
But a review of the two presidential candidates' platforms, public comments and voting records reveals some substantial distinctions on a number of top tourism issues -- issues that could ultimately affect everyone from theme-park executives to housekeepers, bus drivers and bartenders.
Jason Garcia can be reached at email@example.com or 407-420-5414.
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