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Tourism group pushes for bills to lift foreign visitation

American tourism boosters are turning to the federal government for help reversing a decline in foreign visitation to the United States that’s sapped more than 70 percent of the nation’s travel trade surplus since 1996.

At a forum in Washington, D.C., leaders of America’s tourism industry are pressing Congress to approve two bills that would direct hundreds of millions of dollars of public and private money into programs aimed at reviving foreign visitation levels that dropped sharply after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

Critics say the programs smell like a government subsidy for an industry that should use its own money to encourage foreigners to come to the United States to visit resorts, gamble in casinos and tour national parks and other attractions.

Backers say the bills represent an investment that can help rebuild the travel trade surplus from the 2005 level of about $7.4 billion nationally to more than $26 billion, a level it reached in 1996.

Foreign visitation to Las Vegas has rebounded to pre-September 2001 levels. But the rebound is due mainly to an increase in visitors from Canada and Mexico, tourists who generally don’t spend as much or stay as long as overseas guests.

“When folks from other countries are coming here that is the same as selling our products somewhere else,” said Geoff Freeman, executive director of the Discover America Partnership, a hospitality industry-funded advocacy group. “American businesses are handicapped. Every other government is spending tens of millions of dollars to compete against us. We are not spending anything.”

The foreign visitation slump is a hot topic in the hospitality industry, which is gathered in Washington today and Thursday for an industry-sponsored lobbying and networking event called the Travel Leadership Summit.

One of the travel bills, scheduled to be introduced today by Rep. Jon Porter, R-Nev., and Rep. Sam Farr, D-Calif., would create a competitive matching grant program worth up to $50 million over five years. The grants would range in value from $150,000 to $1 million and be used for programs that promote travel to America in the top five international markets for foreign visitors. The money would come from a State Department office for diplomacy and public affairs.

“We also feel like we are falling behind in promoting travel,” said Matt Leffingwell, a spokesman for Porter. “It is an industry that is definitely taken for granted on the hill.”

The other bill, called the Travel Promotion Act of 2007, would create a program operated by private industry and overseen by the secretary of commerce. The program would cost up to $200 million annually, half of which would come from the industry. It would promote travel to the United States by educating people about efforts to reduce the hassles associated with security and bureaucracy that since 2001 have been cited as major factors that repel visitors.

“It is terrible. It is really, really cumbersome,” said Lena Walther of Las Vegas, who travels between the United States and Sweden as often as four times a year and encounters the problems firsthand.

Walther, who operates a Scandinavian furniture showroom in the World Market Center and also the Honorary Consulate of Sweden in Las Vegas, ticked off the list of potential headaches for foreign visitors.

“The security, what you can bring, what you cannot bring, the time it takes, the lost luggage,” she said. “It truly is no fun to travel internationally anymore.”

Freeman said the Travel Promotion Act would help attract visitation by using a new $10 fee charged to foreign visitors to educate audiences abroad about post-Sept. 11 travel policies.

The campaign would try to reverse the perception that since Sept. 11 America is hostile to foreign visitors.

“This fee would be directed to one of the biggest complaints travelers have, that is better communicating our travel policies,” Freeman said.

Others question whether it is even appropriate for the government to act on the hospitality industry’s behalf.

Steve Ellis of the watchdog group Taxpayers for Common Sense said government programs aimed at benefiting certain categories of economic development tend to outlive their usefulness and encourage waste by artificially buffering companies against economic risk.

“We have a profit-loss economy,” Ellis said. “If you don’t ever have a loss, the whole system falls apart.”

Ellis cited a post-Sept. 11 decision by the federal government to subsidize terrorism insurance coverage. He said the program was intended to be a short-term fix to the immediate fallout of the attacks on a segment of the insurance industry. Instead, “The House just voted to extend it 15 years. By doing that we are creating a whole new line of responsibility for the federal government.”

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