Promoting Travel To Alice's Wonderland

The U.S. Senate yesterday passed the Travel Promotion Act (a companion bill is now in committee in the House) which would impose a $10 fee on those foreign visitors not paying for a visa to enter the United States. U.S. Travel Association CEO Roger Dow said the legislation would help the United States "strengthen its image in the world as visitors leave with an improved perception of our country and her people." Perhaps, but on the front end, the U.S. image perceived by some may be weakening as a result.
"The proposed $10 penalty for entering the United States is being sold as a 'tourist promotion' measure--but only in Alice in Wonderland could a penalty be seen as promoting the activity on which it is imposed," according to a statement from Ambassador John Bruton, head of the European Commission delegation to the United States.

The Travel Promotion Act in 2008 passed in the House but not the Senate before Congress adjourned. Now, the version passed by the Senate would create a non-profit corporation "to communicate United States entry policies and otherwise promote leisure, business, and scholarly travel"; establish within the U.S. Department of Commerce an Office of Travel Promotion; and authorize a Travel Promotion Fund, supported by the foreign visitor fees, initial funding from the U.S. Treasury and private-sector contributions.

The non-profit corporation would have an 11-member board of directors--appointed by the Secretary of Commerce--including representatives from the travel distribution services, air transportation, hotel, restaurant, small business/retail/associations, recreation/attractions and intercity rail sectors. Officials from city convention and visitors' bureaus and state tourism offices also would be represented.

Among other things, the group would direct efforts to "identify, counter, and correct misperceptions regarding United States entry policies around the world"; and "provide useful information" related to "entry requirements, required documentation, fees, processes, and information concerning declared public health emergencies, to prospective travelers, travel agents, tour operators, meeting planners, foreign governments, travel media and other international stakeholders."

The Senate approved the legislation 79-19. All 19 nay votes came from Republicans.

Bruton described the bill as "a step backwards in our joint endeavor toward transatlantic mobility." He also called the $10 fee "discriminatory," as it would not be levied on U.S. citizens returning home or foreign visitors from countries not enrolled in the Visa Waiver Program. "This measure increases the cost of flying across the Atlantic and it might actually result in fewer, not more, travelers coming to the United States," according to his statement.

Bruton again took issue with the fee being collected as part of the DHS Electronic System for Travel Authorization. "Legally, the European Commission would also have to re-examine if ESTA can be considered as a visa in disguise, with all the potentially negative implications on reciprocal visa-free travel between the European Union and the United States that this would entail," he cautioned. "Linking travel promotion with national security is a dangerous precedent. ESTA's function is to vet travelers against watch lists, not to collect revenue for the travel industry.

"The supporters of the Travel Promotion Act affirm that it comes at no domestic cost. We don't share this view," Bruton continued. "We are convinced that this seemingly sensible legislation will have negative implications and unintended consequences, which might be far more costly for the United States than any travel promotion or fee revenues can make up for."