Texas officials hope to win back international travelers
San Antonio Business Journal
A sluggish economy and record-high gas prices have already stung domestic tourism in San Antonio and other cities across the country.
Now industry leaders and elected officials in Texas are trying to help push through federal legislation they contend will address a dramatic decline in international travel business in the U.S.
Supporters of House Resolution 3232, better known as the Travel Promotion Act, say that decline has cost the nation a ton of money and far too many jobs. Worse yet, the troubling trend, say officials with the Washington, D.C.-based Travel Industry Association (TIA), comes despite a weak dollar and a boom in worldwide international travel.
According to TIA President and CEO Roger Dow, 2 million fewer international travelers visited the U.S. in 2007 than in 2000. He says the post-9/11 decline has cost the nation nearly $140 billion in lost visitor spending, some $22 billion in lost tax receipts and roughly 230,000 jobs.
HR 3232 was introduced a year ago. According to Congressman Ciro Rodriguez, D-San Antonio, it has since been referred to the Energy & Commerce, Judiciary and Homeland Security committees.
TIA officials say the proposed legislation has picked up approximately 230 sponsors and supporters are now working to get it attached to a bigger bill.
Paul Serff is president and CEO of the Austin-based Texas Travel Industry Association and is a former general manager of San Antonio’s Six Flags Fiesta Texas. He says the bi-partisan bill would create a public-private partnership charged with winning back more international tourism trade.
HR 3232 is, according to Serff, “a no-brainer.”
“We are sitting here with one of the greatest travel markets in the world and we’ve pulled up the welcome mat and hit the mute button on the welcome message as a country,” he adds.
According to TIA, 35 million more people around the world are making “long-haul” international excursions today than in 2000. But the U.S. has seen its share of those travelers fall from 26 million in 2000 to 24 million in 2007. For the U.S., long-haul travelers exclude visitors from Mexico and Canada.
TIA officials say Congressional support for the Travel Promotion Act includes a bi-partisan mix of at least 19 Texas lawmakers. The list includes Rodriguez.
Tourism, says Rodriguez, is an “integral component” in the historic growth San Antonio has enjoyed in recent years. He says international landmarks like the River Walk have helped attract visitors to the Alamo City from across the globe, generating untold millions of dollars and “establishing San Antonio as a premier travel destination.”
Rodriguez contends that HR 3232 would reinvigorate an industry hit hard by the tragic events of 9/11 and further impacted by ensuing security concerns.
“Best of all,” says Rodriguez, “this campaign will be implemented with no cost to American taxpayers.”
If passed, the Travel Promotion Act would create a nonprofit corporation subject to Congressional oversight. That corporation would be charged with executing a roughly $200 million travel promotion program. Half of that funding, according to TIA, would come from voluntary private-sector contributions. Rodriguez says that private-sector funding would be matched by a “modest fee paid by travelers from countries enrolled in the Visa Waiver Program.”
TIA’s Dow says supporters are hopeful lawmakers will pass the legislation before the end of the year.
“We believe we do have some momentum,” he says.
A good amount of that momentum and support is coming from Texas.
“Texas has been there early and been there strong,” says Dow about lawmakers and supporters from the Lone Star State who are pushing to get HR 3232 approved.
The Alamo City, especially, says Dow, has a vested interest in the outcome.
“This is very important for a city like San Antonio, which does not have the budget to compete with a city like Las Vegas on the international front,” Dow explains. “This would level the playing field. It would give San Antonio a chance to step up and get more noticed (internationally).”
In addition to winning back more international travelers, supporters of HR 3232 say there is another benefit. TIA officials say international travelers who have visited the U.S. are 74 percent more likely to have a favorable opinion of the country than those who have not.
By welcoming millions more visitors, the Travel Promotion Act, TIA officials contend, will “greatly enhance America’s people-to-people public diplomacy.”
Says Dow, “Members of Congress clearly understand how important overseas travel is to growing the U.S. economy and enhancing America’s image abroad.”