Proposed US tourism fee sparks debate

US has seen a steady decline in visitors in the past decade. (AFP)

As the United States gears up for a $100 million (Dh367m) effort to boost tourism, doubts remain whether the initiative can live up to its promise and overcome a tarnished US image abroad.

A law signed on March 4 by President Barack Obama creates a Corporation for Travel Promotion, modelled after tourism boards in other countries and US states.

Backers said the programme, which may take from six months to two years to put into service, will help establish a national "brand" image for the US, offer more information and draw more global tourism and its economic benefits. The plan is expected to spend $100m a year, funded with private sector contributions and a $10 fee on foreign travellers who do not require a visa.

No direct US taxpayer money will be used. The new fee is a main point of contention for critics of the plan who argue that the US does not need a flashy marketing campaign and that visitors may be discouraged by new red tape.

"It's not as if people are unaware of the US," said Steve Lott, spokesman for the International Air Transport Association (Iata), a trade group representing major global airlines. The new fee, said Lott, "is essentially a tourism tax, and whether it's the US or any other country we generally have concerns about tourism taxes... Most travellers around the world are well aware of what the US offers for tourists".

Iata told Congress during debate on the measure that it would likely reduce rather than increase the number of overseas visitors to the US.

But Geoff Freeman, Senior Vice-President at the US Travel Association, an industry group that spearheaded the legislation, said passage of programme "is the most significant message in the post-9/11 world from the US Government that we are going to invest in welcoming more visitors".

Freeman said the programme must be accompanied by an effort to deal with the perception and reality of the US entry system – tough security checks and searches, long lines and a generally unfriendly welcome process.

"The demand for travel to the US is quite high," he said.

"Where we suffer is the perception that the US is not as welcoming as it once was," he said.

According to the travel association, the number of overseas visitors to the US has declined steadily in the past decade and was 2.4 million fewer than in 2000.

Backers said the effort will create some 40,000 US jobs and bring in far more tax receipts than the cost of the programme.

Yet some argue the effort could backfire, and that other countries may respond with their own fees on Americans, diminishing the move towards visa-free travel to many countries.

Kasper Zeuthen, a European Union embassy spokesman in Washington, said the programme "is inconsistent with the often repeated commitment of the US to facilitate transatlantic mobility".


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