Arnie WeissmannIn late 2003, the U.S. government had every intention of giving a council of travel industry leaders $50 million to work on promoting inbound tourism. But as the time to cut the check neared, the treasury was authorized to spend only $6 million. 

That was pretty hard to swallow. After all, billions in pork were being approved for questionable pet senatorial projects from Alaska to, um, Alaska, while the travel industry recovery was but a gleam in our collective eye at that time.

Of course, this was before we knew the current administration was going to gift us with an ever-weakening dollar, the best promotional tool a government can give to its inbound operators.

Thats not always so good for the outbound side, but pent-up demand after 9/11 has managed to keep the outbound trade humming, if not roaring, despite our Milquetoast currency.

Last year, Congress upped the ante to $10 million for a 2005 international marketing campaign. Since momentum in the industry seems to be going in the right direction anyway, rather than spend it all on another television campaign in the U.K., I have a modest proposal for, say, $5 million of it: Buy some carts and put them around the baggage carousels and the arrivals areas of international terminals.

Let passengers use them for free.

On one hand, this will allow certain visitors -- lets call them high-end foreign visitors -- to more easily bring their cheap-dollar loot from the limo to the check-in counter when they depart.

On the other end of the scale, it will let another class of guests more easily haul their carpetbags, knapsacks, boxes and trunks from the baggage carousel to and through U.S. customs.

I should disclose that I have a personal stake in this. I figure that, at this point, Im out about $15 renting trolleys for visitors to the U.S. who have arrived without dollar bills or a credit card to pay for a cart.

These visitors are usually inexperienced travelers, budget travelers or coming from developing countries.

The last of these have just been through interviews with immigration officers and, frankly, look on the verge of tears even before seeing that baggage trolleys can be freed only by small U.S. bank notes they dont have yet or plastic they arent qualified to carry.

When former Department of Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge addressed the TIA Unity Dinner last week, he said immigration officers were given more discretion to let irregularities slide when dealing with -- are you sitting down? -- the high-end foreign visitors.

In other words, the ones with the plastic and ready cash have a velvet welcome mat.

He cited it as an example of balancing the economy and security.

I have no problem with that, but, economically speaking, its shortsighted to look after only the rich.

Many visitors first arrive in the U.S. as budget travelers. They ultimately return as high-end visitors because they were made to feel welcome on their first visit.

Im happy to let the smart marketers of carts keep their concessions in domestic terminals.

After all, they have to recoup the small fortune they must have spent inventing a trolley that is in almost every way inferior to the free ones available in other countries. (When carts are free, theres no incentive to design them so a traveler will more likely need two rather than one.) 

But international guests are a different story. As a host country, the U.S. has all but pulled the welcome mat out from under many visitors feet.

The least we can do is reward them with some free wheels once theyve touched down.

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