WASHINGTON — Members of Congress would like to attract more international travelers to the United States, but the welcome mat would come with a $10 price tag.
The Senate took up legislation Tuesday to establish a nonprofit corporation that would coordinate programs promoting international travel to the U.S. Millions of visitors would be charged the $10 assessment to help fund the corporation.
The bipartisan bill, which has 53 co-sponsors, cleared a key hurdle when senators approved a motion 80-19 that will allow senators to consider final passage of the bill as early as Wednesday afternoon.
The United States began requiring people who don't need visas to enter the country to register online at least 72 hours before travel and renew their registration every two years. If the new proposal becomes law, it would require people to pay the $10 fee when they register.
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The European Union has said that some U.S. travelers to Europe could face retaliatory fees.
About 58 million international travelers visited the U.S. last year. Industry officials say millions of potential visitors are looking elsewhere because of enhanced border security after the Sept. 11 terrorism attacks and negative foreign press articles. Many potential visitors just don't feel they're welcome in the U.S., and that's a mindset the private sector can't change by itself, said Geoff Freeman, the U.S. Travel Association's senior vice president.
More than 51 million international visitors came to the U.S. in 2000. That number dropped to 41 million in 2003, and has gradually improved since then, according to the Commerce Department.
The proposal is not without some conservative critics in Congress who say it will have the government taking on work that should be done by the private sector.
Republican Sen. Jim DeMint labeled the proposed corporation "Fannie Travel," a derisive reference to Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, troubled government-sponsored private housing-promotion enterprises that Congress established to provide a stable and affordable housing market. Both experienced serious failures last year.
The travel industry strongly supports the bill, as do lawmakers from some of the states hardest hit by the recession, such as Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, a Democrat from Nevada, home to Las Vegas.
"When tourism is hurt, Nevada hurts. The entire state suffers," Reid said. "Nevada is not alone."
"This bill is really about jobs, and it's a way of creating jobs without adding to the federal debt," said Sen. John Ensign, a Republican from Nevada.
Senators, citing data from industry sources, said ramped up marketing efforts would lead to an additional 1.6 million international travelers to the U.S. annually, and they said those travelers spend about $4,500 per visit.
Slideshow: Awful airlines The U.S. Travel Association has ramped up its lobbying efforts to try and generate support for the measure, spending nearly $600,000 this year — double what it spent during the prior two years combined, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.
Freeman, of the travel association, said every developed country in the world has promotional campaigns designed to attract foreign visitors, and it was time for the U.S. to join the game.
"The United States is the world's anomaly," Freeman said. "And the results speak for themselves."
The private sector spends billions of dollars promoting destinations within the United States. Freeman said hotels and resorts would continue to do so and that the travel industry was not relying on the government to subsidize those costs. Indeed, much of the money for the promotional efforts will come from fees paid by the travel industry.
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