The Senate is set to reconsider a cloture vote on the Tourism
Promotion Act of 2009. This legislation would create another
government entity--this time a corporation, funded on the backs of
foreign tourists--to be used to promote travel to the U.S.
While promoting tourism is absolutely vital to America's
economic well-being, this is just the kind of activity that the
government should stay out of. Taxing tourists so that the U.S. can
encourage tourism simply makes no sense and sends the wrong message
to America's allies. Instead of promoting tourism through the
Tourism Promotion Act, the government should stick to its current
tourism-related responsibilities: making travel to the U.S. easier
by expanding the Visa Waiver Program (VWP), improving visa
services, and upgrading infrastructure at key ports of entry.
Tourism Positive for the U.S.
In 2008, foreign travelers spent $100 billion in the United
States. In fact, foreign tourists often spend three times more than
domestic travelers on items like souvenirs, restaurants, and
hotels, providing an extraordinary investment in the U.S.
Aside from the economic benefits, tourism also helps promote
America's image abroad. When foreign travelers come to America,
interact with Americans, and gain an understanding of what makes
America great, they then share these positive experiences with
members of their own societies, helping to improve America's image
around the world.
The Tourism Promotion Act
As Ambassador John Bruton, head of the European Commission
Delegation, phrased it, the Tourism Promotion Act "sounds very
reasonable. But there's a catch. While seeking to attract
international visitors, the same legislation would also foot them
with the bill for paying for this program." The bill would place a
$10 per person tax on visitors coming to the United States under
the VWP. While $10 may not seem like a lot of money, it could be
used to purchase a night at a casual restaurant, baseball tickets,
or a cab ride. And for families traveling together, the cost would
only be compounded. By taxing a family of six $60, the VWP would,
in essence, penalize larger families who decide to bring their
children to visit the U.S.
Furthermore, since this bill was introduced, there have been
proposals that would increase the tax to $20 per person. While not
necessarily a part of the final bill, such a proposal demonstrates
that there is an appetite in Congress for increasing the amount of
the tax. Over the long term, increased fees could kill the VWP by
making it economically unfeasible for foreign travelers to use the
Encouraging tourists to come to the United States is an
admirable goal. But it is simply illogical to do so by taxing
foreign visitors. Furthermore, this bill is a bad approach for the
following additional reasons:
- It is the wrong kind of business for government. While
the bill is touted as a public-private partnership, in reality it
is more government and not enough private sector. The bill promotes
the kind of excessive government that leads to bureaucracy and
inefficiencies--two results that could kill any of the benefits
associated with such a corporation. Furthermore, advocates insist
that the private sector will have to help foot the bill for the
corporation. But in reality, these "assessments," as they are
called, have no teeth--the government has little power to force the
private sector to pay the assessments--meaning the corporation will
require more government dollars or more taxes on visitors to
survive in the future.
- It sends the wrong message. The new Electronic System
for Travel Authorization (ESTA) was created as a security device.
Therefore, tacking on fees for all sorts of things sends a message
to America's allies that this nation does not take its VWP
relationships seriously. While the amount is only $10 now, one can
easily envision a scenario where this amount increases until it is
no longer efficient to travel through the VWP--essentially killing
- It does not make sense. Taxing visitors as a means of
encouraging visitors to come to the U.S. is simply illogical.
Promoting tourism should mean that Washington takes away every
impediment to travel while still keeping Americans safe, not
increasing the penalties and burdens of travel.
The government can best promote America by making its travel
processes easier, more streamlined, and safer. This makes travel
more enjoyable, which, in turn, makes tourists more likely to visit
the U.S. Consequently, the government should do the following:
- Leave tourism to the private sector. Tourism promotion
and advertising are private-sector functions. With decades of
experience in the business, private-sector companies know the best
methods for promoting tourism.
- Expand the VWP. The VWP is an excellent way to
sustain the tourism industry, make Americans safer, and improve the
U.S.'s image abroad. The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and
Congress should work together to ensure that the membership process
continues. Several steps can ensure this happens. First, Congress
should transfer permanent waiver authority to the DHS and decouple
VWP from the biometric air-exit mandate, which required DHS by the
end of June to biometrically track the exit of foreign passengers
leaving the United States by air. DHS waiver authority has been
suspended and should be revived. Second, DHS must ensure that the
biennial reviews of VWP member countries are a meaningful exercise
and that VWP member countries, just like new members, enter into
bilateral agreements to implement post-9/11 VWP security
requirements. Third, Congress should ensure that ESTA is
user-friendly through multiple-language availability and reliance
on quality databases.
- Target border infrastructure investments at ports of entry
(POEs). Congress and DHS should address infrastructure
deficiencies at POEs. These POEs are dilapidated and inefficient.
Wait times continue to dissuade people from coming to the United
States. Investments in this infrastructure will support tourism by
making travel between the U.S. and other nations more
- Improve visa services. Congress should move forward on
visa reform so that employers can legitimately get the workers they
need to grow the economy. These same employees are likely to be
tourists while in the United States, using their time abroad to see
America and taking a positive image back to their home
Leave It to the Experts
The United States can and should take its tourism industry
seriously. It should be a better facilitator of travel and work
with America's allies to expand opportunities for those who desire
to visit the U.S. But marketing and promotion is not what the
government does best. Washington should leave the P.R. blitz to
those who do it the best: the private sector.
McNeill is Policy Analyst for Homeland Security in the Douglas
and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign Policy Studies, a division of
the Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute for International
Studies, at The Heritage Foundation.