Here's something the Trump administration, congressional Democrats and Republicans and elected officials from the heartland to the coasts all agree on: There's no greater travel destination in the world than the U.S., from exceptional travel experiences to world-class meetings and conferences that drive business and grow local economies.
Unfortunately, travel's impact on America is a bipartisan success story lamentably underreported amid all the political noise in Washington and on cable TV.
In 2016, the travel industry generated an economic output of $2.3 trillion, generating $157 billion in federal, state and local tax. Without the tax revenue generated by travel and tourism, each U.S. household would have to pay $1,250 more in taxes each year.
Also underreported and under-appreciated are the contributions of Brand USA, a small public-private partnership that the president's budget proposal seeks to effectively eliminate.
So, what exactly is Brand USA? It's the nation's first public-private partnership tasked with actively promoting all corners of the country to international travelers worldwide. Born of a bipartisan effort in 2010, its mission is simple: attract international visitors and clearly communicate U.S. travel policies.
In addition to marketing every U.S. region to global travelers, including more remote or off-the-beaten-path locales that are often overlooked, Brand USA is also charged with helping foreign visitors understand our visa and entry policies, which greatly supports U.S. homeland security efforts.
And it does all this at literally zero cost to U.S. taxpayers. In fact, it's a net-positive contributor to the federal ledger.
Half of Brand USA's budget is based on cash and in-kind contributions from 700 partnering companies and U.S. destinations. Those funds are matched for up to $100 million by the proceeds of a small fee paid by international visitors to the U.S. through the Electronic System for Travel Authorization, known as the ESTA fee.
Boasting a 27-to-1 return on investment, this public-private partnership has become an increasingly vital partner for some U.S. regions, cities and destinations that might lack the resources to compete for international travelers.
For example, Brand USA's large-scale, multi-itinerary "megafamiliarization" tours bring international travel agents and industry reps to directly experience the diversity of U.S. destinations. These experiences enable travel agents to better promote the U.S. as a travel destination in their own countries.
Brand USA also amplifies and elevates the efforts of destination marketing organizations in U.S. communities large and small. Through partnerships with U.S. states, cities and towns, it offers a unifying platform to reach potential travelers in the 40 countries that generate 90% of inbound travel to the U.S.
Nowhere is this more evident than in Brand USA's new, highly effective "One Big Welcome" campaign featuring real Americans, not actors, from well-known destinations like Hawaii, Brooklyn, Seattle and Houston along with states like Iowa and Arkansas talking about what makes their hometown or home state great. It sends a powerful, nonpolitical message to international visitors: The United States is welcoming, entertaining, endlessly varied -- and open for business.
Brand USA has also partnered with U.S. federal agencies on world-class destination-marketing efforts. For example, "National Parks Adventure," the IMAX film released in honor of the National Park Service's centennial in 2016, was shown in 100 locations in 12 countries, all without spending a dime of taxpayer money.
If you live here, you might think America's greatness sells itself. But those of us in the hyper-competitive global travel industry know that other countries are battling us for every travel and tourism dollar. And why wouldn't they? There is a lot at stake.
Nearly 76 million international visitors directly supported 1.2 million U.S. jobs with the money they spent here last year. That makes travel this country's No. 1 service export and No. 2 export overall.
Brand USA's marketing efforts deserve credit for bringing in a large portion of those dollars and jobs, not to mention generating a generous serving of federal, state and local tax revenue that supports vital public services. Over the past four years, Brand USA brought to the U.S. a total of 4.3 million additional visitors who spent $13.6 billion while here, generating nearly $4 billion in federal, state and local taxes and almost $30 billion in total economic impact.
This virtuous cycle of economic progress and opportunity that Brand USA has helped create compelled Congress to overwhelmingly approve its reauthorization in 2014. However, the Trump administration's budget proposal is asking Congress to shift Brand USA's ESTA fee funding toward other federal projects.
So far, key lawmakers in charge of funding the government have resisted the White House proposal. But many more votes are expected in Congress before finalizing the 2018 budget, any of which could endanger Brand USA's viability.
Protecting ESTA fee funding for Brand USA is in the administration's best interests, as is reminding the world that we welcome and encourage international visitors (even as it moves to tighten border security against illegal entry.) That is Brand USA's mission, and it does a great job of it without any burden on the American taxpayer.
The latest economic statistics underscore how crucial international visitors are to the success of the Trump economy, which is enjoying record-low unemployment and record-high stock markets. Indeed, a recent surge in U.S. exports is in large part attributable to an influx of visitors to our shores. Without international tourists, it's estimated that our country's $500 billion trade deficit would be 17% larger.
Supporting Brand USA is good, fiscally responsible economic policy and good politics. This is why, on behalf of the 8.6 million Americans directly employed in the travel industry, I'm asking the Trump administration to continue to support full ESTA funding for Brand USA.
I am hopeful that the president embraces Brand USA as a powerful ally that can cut through the noise and tell international travelers why they should visit America's heartland, its big-city destinations and everywhere in between.
President Trump: Support Brand USA, and let it help you accomplish your priority of demonstrating America's greatness to the world.
Roger Dow is president and CEO of the U.S. Travel Association, the Washington-based national umbrella organization representing all segments of travel in America. The association's mission is to increase travel to and within the U.S.