- The Washington Times - Tuesday, October 3, 2006

The largest international tourism organization yesterday said the United States needs to develop a national tourism strategy before it is further outpaced by China and other countries.

The World Travel and Tourism Council (WTTC) warned that the United States, which draws the third- most international tourists after France and Spain, will sink lower on the list if it doesn’t appoint a Cabinet-level tourism official, fund a national tourism campaign and develop biometric-based passport and visa programs.

Since shortly after the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, the U.S. tourism industry has asked the U.S. government for a balance between securing the country’s borders and keeping them open enough for international tourists to feel welcome.

Last year, 49.4 million international tourists came to the United States, down 7 percent from 2000. During that time, international travel elsewhere in the world rose 17 percent.

China, currently fourth in the number of international tourists, is threatening to take the United States’ position. Its international tourist arrivals have more than doubled since 1995 to 46.8 million last year.

“I never have seen such a robust travel and tourism economy all over the world,” said Jean-Claude Baumgarten, president of the WTTC. “Why should the travel and tourism economy in the States go downward while the rest of the world’s is expanding?”

Foreign tourists haven’t felt welcomed by the United States, as the country has adapted tougher standards for visitors to get visas or enter the country, according to the WTTC. Instead of waiting out visa requests or sifting through the paperwork, international tourists have decided to go elsewhere.

The WTTC said changes in policy and biometric-based airport screening and travel documents would make traveling to the United States easier.

“One of the things that came out of [the WTTC’s international summit in Washington in April] is that with everything going on in the world, the rest of the world is embracing those issues and doing something about it,” said Vincent Wolfington, WTTC chairman. “The U.S. is doing nothing about it.”

The WTTC outlined other specific goals, such as $200 million in international marketing of the United States and the Cabinet-level position. But its ultimate hope is that government and private industry leaders get together to develop their own plan, Mr. Wolfington said.

A White House spokesman declined to comment yesterday on whether the administration has considered a Cabinet-level tourism position.

“Obviously we take tourism to the U.S. very seriously. It’s an important contributor to our national economy and we’re constantly working to make sure that it’s relatively safe and easy for visitors to come to our country,” spokesman Tony Fratto said.

The WTTC has done similar work encouraging China and India to develop national tourism programs.

Domestic tourism groups already have started similar work.

The Discover America Partnership, a campaign of the Travel Industry Association and private tourism companies, was founded last month with hopes of winning pro-tourism policy changes.

But it has no plans to ask for a Cabinet position or marketing funding — for now — and says the WTTC announcement doesn’t change that stance.

Executive Director Geoff Freeman said Congress still needs to be convinced that allowing more tourists to visit the United States is a good move. Research shows that foreigners who have been to the United States are 42 percent more likely to hold a favorable opinion of the United States.

“The policies we’re promulgating are designed to keep people out of this country,” Mr. Freeman said. “We need to decide as a nation that we’re a stronger country with more travelers. Once we fully understand that … then we can have an honest debate.”

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