Senate Committee Approves Travel Promotion Bill

Washington -- The Senate Commerce Committee yesterday approved a bill to create in effect a national tourist board for the United States, a long-sought objective of travel industry lobbying groups.

The Travel Promotion Act would create a non-profit Corporation for Travel Promotion, which would be governed by a board of directors appointed by the commerce secretary; and a federal Office of Travel Promotion, charged with increasing inbound tourism, including working with federal agencies to smooth entry procedures into the United States.

To pay for operations, the bill also would create a Travel Promotion Fund, to be funded by fees generated through the federal Visa Waiver program as well as private industry contributions.

Travel industry leaders yesterday praised the committee's action.

"This is a critical step toward rolling out the welcome mat for international visitors, and we applaud the Senate Commerce Committee for this action today," said Roger Dow, chief executive of the Travel Industry Association.

In a survey conducted on behalf of the Travel Business Roundtable and released last week, mayors in the nation's top tourist cities overwhelmingly blame difficult government entry procedures for a decline in international visitors.

The survey of 25 mayors, including those from 19 of the top 20 visitor destination cities in the country, found the following:

--96 percent of mayors attributed the decline in international tourists to the difficulty of obtaining a U.S. entry visa, including excessive wait times, a requirement for in-person interviews, and non-refundable visa fees.

--80 percent said uncertainty and unpredictability of U.S. entry requirements results in fewer international travelers visiting the United States. (Overall travel to the top 15 U.S. destination cities is down 20 percent since the peak before the terrorists attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, according to the Travel Business Roundtable.)

--76 percent said unfriendly treatment of international visitors by U.S. immigration officials is a major element in declining arrivals.

The United States is one of the few major countries without a government-funded national tourist board working to increase inbound travel. The bill, S1661, must now pass full Senate muster. The House must also approve the bill, and the president must sign it, before it becomes law.

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