The new $10 tax on foreign tourists, and how it could cost you, too

Congress is soon to vote on a new law that would make every foreign visitor to the United States pay $10. Why? To encourage them to come!

That's right. The government, in a bipartisan effort, wants to create a public relations branch that works to convince international visitors to come spend their euro and pounds here. The U.S. collects some $1.3 trillion from tourism a year, and 8.3 million work in the industry. The act's sponsors point out that since 9/11 international visitorship to the United States has plunged 17% despite the fact that worldwide, travel has increased.

It's not because we're turning away more people; it's that people would rather not cut through the thickening wads of red tape that come with every airplane ticket here. We've lost 200,000 jobs because of that. Our attitude at the border is clearly costing us. So we'd create a new non-profit group to sell our destination, and to fund it, everyone who comes to see us would pay another $10.

Most in the travel industry, including the U.S. Travel Association, think we need this new effort. Curiously, the Heritage Foundation, the famous conservative/Reaganist think tank, agrees that we need a better tourism promotion, too. But it's opposed to the Travel Promotion Act of 2009 because it would be a federal project.

A recent report released by the activist group said that international tourism is massively valuable to America, often injecting three times as much into the economy as what domestic travelers spend. It even says that foreign tourism is good for homeland security "by ensuring that the U.S. knows more about foreign visitors before they reach U.S. soil."

But the Heritage Foundation thinks that the private sector should be doing the promoting, although it never really explains why that's definitively better. But we've tried that. After all, the private sector has been promoting America up to now, and look at the train wreck it's been, with states battling cities battling attractions. We lack a coherent federal message, and that's important, because what's putting so many visitors off is our federal image.

Unlike Australia or New Zealand, which don't battle image problems, America needs federal cooperation to butter up foreign visitors. Right now, the Department of Homeland Security, with its order-barking agents and signs free of so much as a single picture to help people who speak other languages, is the first unsmiling public face that friendly international visitors see of our country.

We can't get rid of our rigorous entry procedures, so we have to work to convince visitors they're not going to wind up with a latex-covered finger in a body cavity if they try to attempt to come see us.

Heritage is only partly correct. Unwittingly, it proves that we do desperately need a federal public relations effort. We just don't need to tax the people who want to see us. If you look at a world map, departure taxes and entry fees are the kind of thing that mostly small-time, corrupt, or pompous countries do to tourists.

Every American visitor to Cambodia knows the sinking feeling of handing over cash to the guy at the rickety desk at the airport. You know that most, if not all, of that money isn't going to wind up funding anything that serves tourists. It's ugly. And you can't create good PR through bad PR.

The Travel Promotion Act would create something that, ideally, would advise the other branches of the government on how to do their jobs effectively and in a way that doesn't scare away all that potential money.

The figure of $10 also seems huge to me, particularly because it will be matched by another $100 million in federal funds. Short of writing "USA" across the moon, what promotion could cost that much?

A few days ago, I wrote about the number of American cities that think the answer to budget crunches is to milk the tourists, thereby annoying the people they need to woo. Here's another potential problem: Other countries could be so annoyed by that $10 fee that they could turn around and do the same to us whenever we go there, and that would make travel more expensive for all of us. That kind of thing happens all the time. Brazil and the United States have spent years squabbling over visa fees like a couple of high school students.

Investing in proper destination marketing shouldn't cost very much. More importantly, it's something that most of the rest of the world does -- we're behind in this, and other countries are poaching our business -- but our leaders are finding the concept too difficult to handle. Unfortunately, we may have to live with this moronic fee if it means the creation of a long-overdue national effort is at stake. We have to do something to get tourism.

Tourism promotion should be considered a basic budget priority, not another opportunity to collect money that will get tossed into the furnace of our system. We give subsidies to farmers and tax cuts to oil corporations, so we should see fit to properly fund a program that yields proven results in our economy.

Congress should approve a version of the Travel Promotion Act that doesn't bite the hands that feed us.
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