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It’s time to rally behind Brand USA
July 23 2013

It’s time to take action to ensure Congress renews authorization for the country’s tourism promotion agency.

  • Brand USA is funded by private sector donations and fees from travelers entering the country.
  • Comprehensive reform legislation included several provisions critical to the tourism industry.
  • Let your elected officials know why tourism promotion is important.
By Ed Watkins

It’s a shame when politics gets in the way of good economic policy. That’s the case in the United States as Congress plays political football with the future of Brand USA, the 2-year-old public-private partnership formed to encourage global travelers to visit the country.

And unfortunately, the real losers in this kind of battle may be hard-working small business owners (including many owners of hotels), the class of citizens many politicians claim they want to help.

Brand USA was created following passage of the Travel Promotion Act of 2009, which authorized a $10 fee on global travelers entering the U.S. from countries in the Visa Waiver Program. Those funds, together with matching cash and in-kind donations from the private sector, create a pool of up to $100 million per year Brand USA can spend on tourism promotion. It’s the first such scheme in the U.S., and it was long overdue, considering what other countries spend to lure tourists to their shores. And perhaps more important, the operation of Brand USA doesn’t cost U.S. taxpayers a dime.

Last month, the Senate passed comprehensive immigration reform legislation that included a number of items of importance to the tourism industry, including reauthorization of Brand USA beyond its mandated sunset in 2015, as well as further enhancements to the visa process. The legislation was sent to the House of Representatives, where it has stalled. And it appears as though the current mood of the House is to pass immigration legislation piece-meal, leaving the tourism components of the Senate bill in limbo or worse.

A few members of Congress who understand the importance of tourism are trying to make a difference. Rep. Dina Titus of Nevada earlier this month introduced legislation that would reauthorize the agency past 2015. So far, the bill has no co-sponsors, which is not a good sign.

The U.S Travel Association has taken the lead in the lobbying effort to save Brand USA and to urge passage of the so-called JOLT Act, a bill (H.R. 1354) in the House that would include all the travel-friendly provisions included in the Senate legislation.

Patricia Rojas-Ungár, VP of government affairs for U.S. Travel, said the association hopes to work through the House committee process to gain traction on the legislation.

“We had a positive hearing on (the subject) at the committee level last year and again earlier this year,” she said. “We feel we have a good case to make that our legislation is jobs-creation legislation and it doesn’t cost the American taxpayer any dollars.”

Not everyone in Congress buys that argument. Last year, two Senators, Jim DeMint and Tom Coburn, issued a blistering report excoriating Brand USA for what it called “a history of waste, abuse, patronage and lax oversight.”

Some say the real reason DeMint, Coburn and other politicians have blasted Brand USA is because they want to hijack the agency’s money (at least that portion generated from visa fees) for other uses. These politicians don’t understand how bringing more tourists to the U.S. helps the entire economy and ultimately the Federal treasury.

I believe part of the problem lies with Brand USA, which so far hasn’t done a very good job touting its successes. You’ve got to dig deep into its website to find any mention of results it’s generated. It issued its first annual report last year, in which buried deep inside was the fact that its marketing campaign significantly increased the percentage of consumers in several countries who said they intend to travel to the U.S.: up 12% in the United Kingdom, 14% in Japan and 22% in Canada.

It’s important that Brand USA be able to continue its work without the threat of a death penalty from Congress. And there is a way for you to help the cause. Rojas-Ungár urges everyone in the industry to talk with their elected officials about the economic power of tourism.

“Congress is finally getting that message, not only from what we’re saying, but they hear it when they go back home, and they’re seeing it in the economic data that shows one of the first industries to rebound from the recession has been travel,” she said.

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