The candidates and your bottom line

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Eben PeckThe 2012 campaign is approaching full throttle, where it will remain until November. Over the coming months, you will be deluged with information on the divergent views that President Barack Obama and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney hold on economics, social issues and foreign affairs. But what, if anything, will be said about the travel and tourism industry, which according to the U.S. Travel Association represents one in every nine jobs in the U.S.?

While unlikely to decide the election, the two candidates' plans for the travel industry could have a huge impact on your bottom line. So, as the nominating conventions near, now is a good time to take a first cut at what this election will mean for our industry.

In many respects, it is hard to do an apples-to-apples comparison of the candidates' positions on travel issues, as one has overseen a number of federal agencies that affect the industry and the other has not. And both do their best to speak in general terms without getting into policy details. We look forward to hearing more from both candidates as the campaign moves forward. (We reached out to both campaigns but did not hear back by deadline.)

That said, with a "paper trail" dating back to 2009, Obama gives us a lot more to work with. Consider the White House's Task Force on Travel and Tourism Strategy, charged with developing "a National Travel and Tourism Strategy ... to promote domestic and international travel opportunities ... with the goal of increasing the U.S. market share of worldwide travel." ASTA was an active participant in the strategy's development, released last month with the goal of attracting 100 million international visitors, spending an estimated $250 billion, to the U.S. by 2021.

It includes a host of recommendations, most of them focused on international travel, including coordination with Brand USA, the nonprofit responsible for marketing to international travelers; visa process streamlining; risk-based security; support for travel industry small businesses; and increased engagement with the private sector.

ASTA on Policy: Position on TravelRomney had little to say about the strategy, beyond calling the president's choice of Disney World as the setting for his announcement of the task force's creation "appropriate because he's been living in ... fantasyland these last few years."

The Obama administration has also been active on airline passenger protection, a cause near and dear to ASTA members. In 2011, the Department of Transportation (DOT) set rules to change the way airlines treat passengers. They included extending the tarmac delay limit to foreign carriers, mandatory refunds when baggage is lost, enhancements to denied-boarding compensation, expansion of the "full price" rule to include government charges and enhanced notice of delays.

The DOT is also working on passenger protection rules, due in November, that ASTA hopes will provide consumers with full access to airline ancillary fees. Again, Romney has not weighed in on the details, though he regularly rails against the administration's regulatory agenda, asserting that "the end result is an economy subject to the whims of unaccountable bureaucrats pursuing their own agendas."

In terms of tourism promotion initiatives, Obama has been supportive, Romney less so. In 2010, Obama signed the Travel Promotion Act, which created Brand USA, funded by a $10 fee on international visitors, to promote the U.S. as an international destination.

Romney has said he supports the House Republican 2013 budget that calls for eliminating Brand USA, as "it is not a core responsibility of the federal government to pay for and conduct advertising campaigns for a certain industry. ... The travel industry can and should pay for the advertising that it benefits from."

Further, as Massachusetts governor, Romney tried to kill the state's tourism fund, which supports its domestic and international tourism promotion.

One area where Romney has an edge is on independent contractors (ICs), an employment arrangement that provides benefits for both workers and travel agencies where a traditional relationship is impractical or uneconomical. This is a crucial issue for travel agencies, since 61% of ASTA members use at least one IC.

Obama has proposed measures that would make it prohibitively difficult for agencies to utilize ICs and would force agencies to assume significant new costs in the forms of payroll taxes and other expenses. Romney has not specifically addressed the IC issue, but one suspects he would count the federal agencies charged with cracking down on ICs among the "unaccountable bureaucrats" mentioned above.

At the end of the day, how the overall economy performs in the next few years will have more of an impact on the travel industry than anything discussed here. According to the research firm PhoCusWright, only 62% of Americans are planning leisure travel now, vs. 70% prerecession.

ASTA takes no position on the broader agendas of the two candidates but seeks only to illuminate their records as they explicitly relate to travel issues and do what we can to help Travel Weekly's readers understand what this election will mean for them.

Eben Peck is ASTA's vice president for government affairs. Contact him at [email protected].

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