Through a $10 fee, U.S. aims to draw more visitors

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Uncle Sam is getting an expensive megaphone to tell the world’s tourists, “I want you.”

Aiming to reverse a steep drop in international visitors since the 2001 terrorist attacks, Congress last week passed legislation creating a nonprofit corporation to promote the United States as a travel destination.

A $10 fee on many foreign visitors would help finance the new corporation and could raise as much as $200 million a year.

Among the legislation’s goals is to better explain the stricter U.S. entry requirements for foreign visitors since the attacks.

Those policies are cited as the main reason foreign travel to the U.S. is down 9% since 2000 although it is up 39% worldwide in the same period, according to the U.S. Travel Assn., an industry trade group.

“We’ve changed security measures so many times that the world is confused and we’ve inadvertently sent a message we don’t want travelers in the United States,” said Roger Dow, the group’s president.

A study by consulting firm Oxford Economics said the legislation, which President Obama is expected to sign, would attract 1.6 million additional foreign visitors annually, pumping $4 billion into the economy each year and creating about 40,000 U.S. jobs.

With such projections -- and with foreign visitors and the travel industry footing the bill -- the Senate easily approved the legislation Thursday. The House had passed it earlier.

Strongly backed by much of the travel industry, along with the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the legislation had a key supporter in Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), who hopes to revive Las Vegas’ slumping tourism industry.

California, which vies with Florida annually as the top destination for foreign travelers, stands to be a big winner. There were 13.4 million such travelers to California in 2008, spending $18.3 billion, about 19% of total tourist spending.

Caroline Beteta, president of the California Travel and Tourism Commission, said international travelers stay longer, spend more money and come during off-peak periods. “Basically they come when the industry needs the business most,” she said.

The new initiative would generate $650 million in tourist spending and create 6,500 jobs annually in California, according to the Oxford Economics study.

The legislation would impose a $10 fee on visitors from 35 European and Asian countries who do not need visas to enter the United States. It would not apply to visitors from Mexico or Canada.

The fee, which would cover a traveler for two years, would produce as much as $100 million a year to match money and in-kind contributions, such as advertising, raised by the travel industry. California and some other states also use a public-private model for tourism promotion.

After a start-up period, the fee would generate as much as $200 million a year to be spent by the corporation, which would be overseen by a board of 11 people appointed by the Commerce secretary. If the industry reaches that level, it would give the U.S. the largest tourism promotional budget of any country, Dow said.

But imposing a fee on foreign travelers, particularly when the world is recovering from a major recession, could be counterproductive, warned Steve Lott, a spokesman for the International Air Transport Assn., which represents carriers in the U.S. and abroad.

“We question the logic of the U.S. going out to travelers around the world and saying, ‘Please come visit the United States, but we’re going to charge you more at the door,’ ” he said.

He also worried that the fee could rise over time, as a similar levy in Britain has. But supporters of the legislation said the fee is small compared with the $5,000 spent by the average foreign tourist on a U.S. trip.