WASHINGTON — The United States needs to wage a charm offensive to woo overseas tourists seduced by rivals like France and Italy, US senators and industry experts agreed Wednesday
“Other countries are out there saying to the international tourists: “Come to Rome! See the beauty of Italy! Visit Paris! See the wonders of France! Come to London! Other countries are actively engaged because they know it is a huge jobs generator,” Democratic Senator Byron Dorgan told a hearing.
Dorgan is the lead author of legislation to create a coordinated national campaign aimed at attracting foreign guests to the United States, a major economic engine sputtering in the face of a global recession.
Industry figures show that international visitors spend roughly 4,000 dollars per person during their stay in the United States, generating 1.38 trillion dollars in sales in 2008 and supporting some 8.6 million jobs.
But the international financial meltdown has led many to scale back their travel plans. About 200,000-travel related US jobs vanished in 2008, and the US Commerce Department estimates that another 247,000 will go in 2009.
“Families are cutting back on vacations to save money, and businesses are cutting back on meetings and events for their employees and customers,” said Democratic Senator Amy Klobuchar.
And the US share of the world travel market has plunged 20 percent since 2000 — much of it after the September 11, 2001 terrorist strikes — Klobuchar said as she led a Senate Commerce subcomittee hearing on the situation.
The new legislation would created a travel promotion campaign, to be funded by a 10-dollar fee paid by travelers seeking visa waivers and matching monies from the travel industry.
“And you know advertising works. How else would people be able to sell bottled water, which most of us can walk out the door and get free?” said Dorgan.
Travel industry officials from Las Vegas, Walt Disney Resorts, the Travelocity online booking site, and Carlson hotels pleaded with the senators to approve the legislation and put 200 million dollars behind the campaign.
“We are only asking the United States to establish what nearly every other major foreign market already has: A nationally coordinated and well-funded travel promotion campaign,” said Jay Rasulo, the chairman of Walt Disney parks and resorts.
Rasulo also showed a video, produced by Disney but donated to the US government, aimed at drumming up goodwill to the United States and drawing visitors.
The video includes footage of the sun rising over New York City, San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge, the Washington monument, brief footage of Las Vegas, bucolic heartland scenes of a farms, two smiling bikini-clad women on a beach, a boat in Florida’s everglades, and amusement rides.
It also includes footage of young mothers of various ethnicities with their babies, a little boy flexing his muscles near a tire swing, and finally shots of people saying “welcome” and the Statue of Liberty.
Republican Senator Mel Martinez called the video and other efforts to improve the US image overseas “a very positive and needed thing” and noted polls showing a majority of foreign travelers felt they had been treated rudely by US immigration officials when they visited.
“There ought to be some things we can do about that,” said Martinez, who hails from Florida. “Maybe they ought to go through Disney college for a little bit of friendly environment.”