Imagine the federal government creating a company to promote an industry and bankrolling up to half of its budget. If this company were promoting the oil and gas industry or agribusiness or banking, people would be outraged, and rightly so. But when it comes to the tourism industry, daydreams of beach vacations and mountain retreats seem to lull too many into giving this arrangement a pass—up to a $100 million pass.
Brand USA is such a company, and Congress is trying to reauthorize its charter beyond its original date of 2015. Created by Congress in the Travel Promotion Act, Brand USA opened its doors in May 2011 with the goal of increasing international tourism to America. The company works as a public-private partnership where funding from the private sector and local governments is matched by federal funding up to $100 million. Federal funds come from a fee collected from foreign travelers (some of them the very same tourists we are trying to attract) using the Electronic System for Travel Authorization, a service that expedites the visa process for nations that are friends and allies of the U.S.
The House has already passed legislation that would extend Brand USA’s charter beyond the original date of 2015 to the year 2020 and would install new performance metrics and a reporting requirement. The matter remains for the Senate to determine. Brand USA has touted the employment and economic benefits it has provided to “move the needle” toward reaching the President’s goal of 100 million international tourists by 2021. But at least two things are missing from the picture.
What Congress is not being told is that the tourism industry isn’t hurting for business and hasn’t been for a while. According to the Department of Commerce, the travel industry is one of America’s largest export services and garnered $1.5 trillion in total sales in 2013. In fact, international travel to America began increasing years before Brand USA, beginning with a post-9/11 upswing in 2004. The story is the same for tourist spending in America which amounted to a record $180.7 billion in 2013.
The Department of Commerce is forecasting more of the same, a trend not lost on Brand USA, which noted in its 2013 strategic report that “arrivals to the United States are expected to increase 36 percent from 59.7 million travelers in 2010 to 81 million travelers in 2016…[equating] to an additional $88 billion in U.S. revenues and 629,000 jobs.” One has to wonder what those new market metrics Congress has proposed are supposed to prove.
Secondly, whether or not Brand USA is a success is almost beside the point. Nowhere is it Congress’s constitutional responsibility to help an industry with marketing and communication strategies. In addition to the massive private industry, states, regions, and cities already spend significantly on tourism. Hawaii’s Tourism Authority spent $12.1 million on international tourism in 2013 and plans to spend over $1 million more this year in addition to $1.5 million to work with Brand USA. The redundancy could not have been more obvious this September in Chicago when Brand USA announced its new platform “Market the Welcome.” One Chicago journalist quipped, “No, this isn’t part of Chicago’s Mayor Rahm Emmanuel’s aggressive efforts to boost international tourism in Chicago” with the “Choose Chicago” campaign.
The federal government does have a role in international tourism: providing for safety with visa and security requirements. Fixing illogical requirements to the travel visa program could reduce expenses and wait times for tourists and would relieve undue strain on some U.S. embassies that would then be able to better serve Americans by concentrating more of their resources on potential threats. That may involve fewer stunning marketing pictures of the Rockies and Florida beaches, but it’s an area where the federal government can make a real impact in the tourism industry where no one else can.