Commerce secretary works to help tourism industry

As the federal government moves to secure American borders, the U.S. travel industry has enlisted an influential new lobbyist to press its case for protecting the lucrative international tourism market: Commerce Secretary Carlos Gutierrez.

In an odd alignment of government and industry interests, Gutierrez essentially asked travel and tourism officials to help him develop an agenda for boosting their business and to provide him with talking points for pleading their case with other federal agencies that control the borders.

The secretary's focus on travel issues is so intense that Al Frink, the Commerce Department's "manufacturing czar," told an industry gathering in July, "I think that the secretary is impassioned, he's committed. He's even at the point where [in the department's senior offices] it's often said, 'Is there another subject that we have on the table right now besides tourism?' And, actually, I would say the answer is no."

According to Commerce Department statistics, international travel to the United States fell after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, dropping from $103 billion in 2000 to $80 billion in 2003. It returned to the $103 billion level only last year. Tourism is an important component of the U.S. balance of trade, making up about 27 percent of the nation's total service exports.

Since 1995, the United States has dropped from second place behind France as the most popular tourist destination to third place behind Spain, and China's booming tourism industry threatens to push the United States into fourth.

Travel executives argue that the U.S. share of the market is shrinking not only because other countries are trying harder but also because U.S. security concerns are making it tougher for foreigners to get visas. The State Department issued 7.6 million nonimmigrant visas in 2001, but only 4.9 million in 2003 and 5.4 million in 2005.

The industry's most immediate concern is the government's Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative, which establishes new travel document requirements for visitors crossing the Canadian or Mexican border. Industry executives fear that it could eliminate a significant portion of the 15 million trips that Canadians made to the U.S. in 2005.

For more than a decade, the U.S. hospitality industry has been trying (with limited success) to make the case for greater government attention to travel as an economic engine. In 2003, at the nadir of international arrivals, Congress approved $50 million for the Commerce Department to create an international advertising and promotional campaign to encourage individuals to travel to the United States.

The provision, tucked into an omnibus appropriations bill, also called for the creation of an industry advisory board to help Commerce figure out how to spend the money. But most of the $50 million was never spent.

The advisory board -- officially the Travel and Tourism Promotion Advisory Board -- spent about $6 million for a marketing campaign in Great Britain and has $4 million earmarked for a campaign in Japan, but Congress rescinded the rest. By the time the advisory board's charter was to expire in the summer of 2005, "there was a lot of frustration," one industry source said, "and people were wondering whether it was worth renewing the charter."

As the advisory board was winding down, the industry decided to overhaul its Washington representation. In June 2005, the Travel Industry Association of America, a sprawling collection of hospitality-related businesses that had struggled to create a unified identity, shut down its small government-affairs operation and handed the industry's lobbying efforts to the Travel Business Roundtable, an association headed by Loews Hotels Chairman Jon Tisch.

Promising a "one industry, one voice" approach, TIA's new CEO-former Marriott executive Roger Dow-joined Tisch and advisory board Chairman James Rasulo, president of Walt Disney Parks and Resorts, and several other top travel and tourism officials for a series of meetings in Washington.

In the first week of July, the group met with a handful of State Department, Homeland Security, and White House officials to emphasize the importance of international tourism to the U.S. economy and to warn that new border-security initiatives could have a disastrous effect on travel and tourism by making it almost impossible for Canadian and Mexican visitors to make spontaneous trips to the U.S.

The group apparently found a sympathetic ear in Gutierrez, a former CEO of Kellogg.

The day after the travel group announced its "productive high-level Washington meetings" in a press release, a notice in the Federal Register said that the Commerce Department was seeking nominees for a reconstituted advisory board, although it was nearly a month before the department announced its plans for the board.

By August, the board's name had been shortened by dropping the word "Promotion," and its mandate had been expanded dramatically. In addition to working on a marketing campaign, the group would advise Gutierrez on "the development, creation, and implementation of a national tourism strategy." Of the 14 industry executives who make up the new board, 10-including its chairman, Rasulo-were members of the old board.

At the advisory board's first meeting in January, Gutierrez said he wanted a tourism strategy in hand in six months. "It may not be as perfectly designed as it would have been if we waited a year, but I would just ask you to think about what we're going to lose by waiting another six months," the secretary said.

In April and again in July, he returned to help shape the final recommendations that the advisory board would make to him.

"If we could do one single thing for your industry and we could somehow find ways to improve the flow of visas in a way that maintains all of our national security objectives, I think that would be the single biggest thing we could do for you," Gutierrez said.

The final report, which the board presented to Gutierrez earlier this month, focused primarily on the secretary's recommended issues of improving the process for legitimate visitors to get entry visas to the U.S. while maintaining strong security protections. It also returned to the industry's initial themes-creating a national marketing campaign to sell the U.S. as a destination abroad, and revising the border transit requirements to maintain the ease of travel across the Canadian and Mexican borders.

A week later, the industry executives on the advisory board announced their "Discover America Campaign," a national marketing strategy to attract 10 million more international travelers to the U.S. each year. In public appearances, Gutierrez applauded the announcement.

While Washington bookshelves groan under the weight of advisory committee reports that have never been implemented, perhaps few have come with this kind of personal commitment from a Cabinet secretary. Beyond driving the drafting of the strategy, Gutierrez has already promised to help the industry plead its case before other agencies.

"This is not going to be resolved because we talk about it," Gutierrez told the board in July. "It's going to require a lot of follow-up, it's going to require a lot of pushing with our partners at Homeland Security, with the State Department, because we're dealing with a lot of people, we're dealing with a lot of conflicting priorities.... We at the Commerce Department may not have all the strings, we may not have all the departments reporting in to us, but we can give you access to people who make decisions, who can hear your concerns, who have the ability to address some of your concerns."

In an interview, Gutierrez said his work with travel and tourism is no different from his role with other domestic industries. "We're not in the business of business in Washington," Gutierrez told National Journal. "We don't invest money, we don't create jobs, we don't create wealth. We create an environment so that entrepreneurs and business people can do that. In the case of tourism, that's what we do: We listen to them, and then we see where government policy can help. We do that with other industries as well."

Gutierrez said the travel industry is of growing importance to the nation's economy, and a smoothly functioning visa process is critical to that growth. "There is no question that for us, national security is No. 1," he said. "Anything we do cannot compromise national security. But we believe that in that area of visas and tourists and travelers, we can be of help." The challenge for government, he said, is to "allow people in who want to travel or to do business, and to keep out people who want to do us harm."

DHS and State are moving to address some of the industry's concerns, although industry officials express frustration with the slow pace of change. In January, the departments announced an initiative for "secure borders and open doors," emphasizing the use of new technologies to improve the experience for visa applicants and visitors arriving at U.S. airports.

Most of the initiative's projects are under development or in test phases, a State Department spokeswoman said, and one key piece should be rolled out any day now-yet another tourism industry advisory board.

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