Travel industry: Renew Brand USA to reach 100M visitors

U.S. Travel Association President Roger Dow pushed lawmakers in the Senate on Thursday to renew a tourism campaign that is credited with attracting 1.1 million visitors to the U.S. in 2013.

The program, known as Brand USA, is a public-private partnership that is funded in part with money that collected from fees paid by international travelers for visa applications when they visit the U.S.

Dow told the Senate Commerce subcommittee on tourism that reauthorizing the Brand USA program would help tourism in the U.S. jump from 70 million visitors in 2013 to 100 million by 2021.

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"With an overwhelming return on investment, Brand USA last year attracted 1.1 million additional visitors to the United States, not only to gateway cities, but throughout our heartland," Dow told the panel. "Now that Brand USA has hit its full stride, those numbers will increase exponentially, but only if its authorization is extended."

Sens. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) and Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) have filed a bill to renew the Brand USA program.

Dow told the Senate panel that reauthorizing the program should be a no-brainer.

"By promoting the United States as a destination and clearly explaining our security policies, Brand USA is helping to restore our competitive advantage in the world travel market, all without a penny of U.S. taxpayer funds," he said.

"This model of unlocking private sector funds without federal taxpayers footing the bill is one that should be attractive across the political spectrum," Dow continued. "So here’s my first ask to get us to 100 million visitors: Please move S. 2250 through this committee and pass it on the Senate floor this year." 

Dow said lawmakers should also make changes to the nation's system for approving visas to make it easier for potential tourists to complete the applications process and complete the Federal Aviation Administration's development of a proposed new satellite-based airplane navigation system known as NextGen.

Dow said the number of travelers on commercial airlines would grow to the point where 24 of the busiest 30 U.S. airports would experience congestion like that seen near Thanksgiving, which is generally the busiest time of the year for domestic air travel.

"The United States simply cannot meet its goals to increase domestic and international travel without greater investments in our aviation and surface transportation networks," Dow said. "This committee can help to lead this effort by accelerating deployment of NextGen and allowing U.S. airports to raise their passenger facility charges by up to $8.50, in order to fund critical modernization projects." 

Dow said lawmakers should also pass a bipartisan bill that is known as the Jobs Originating through Launching Travel Act, which is intended to expand a visa waiver program for potential temporary workers.

Lawmakers on the Senate's tourism subcommittee were receptive to Dow's pitch for expanding travel to the U.S. from other countries.

"The travel and tourism industry is a major economic driver and job creator across the country and especially in Hawaii," subcommittee Chairman Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii) said in a statement. "It generates trillions of dollars in economic output and supports more than 14 million American jobs. Expanding our tourism industry and creating good jobs is going to take increased collaboration between the public and private sectors."

The top-ranking Republican on the panel agreed.

"Growing our nation's travel and tourism industry is vital for our economy in South Carolina and across our country," Sen. Tim Scott (R-S.C.) said in the statement. "As we look to bring 100 million visitors into the country annually by the end of 2021, what these hotels, activity operators, restaurants and shops really need is a partner in Washington, D.C. that isn't overtaxing, over-regulating or otherwise standing in the way of their ability to grow."