A bill to reauthorize and extend the life of Brand USA, our international tourism promotion office, has sailed through the House Energy and Commerce Committee and stands a chance of getting passed before Congress adjourns for the election season.
This is good news, particularly because some members of Congress remain uncomfortable with the idea of using federal dollars to promote tourism, even though inbound international tourism offers a big payoff in the form of foreign visitor spending.
The architects of the Travel Promotion Act addressed this challenge with a creative compromise: The industry contributes dollars and in-kind services, and the government provides matching funds generated entirely by a new fee on foreign visitors.
That fee, the ESTA fee (for Electronic System for Travel Authorization) is paid by visitors from visa waiver countries who don't pay a visa fee. No taxpayer dollars are used, and no existing federal funds are diverted from other purposes. This system works.
This is the system that is up for reauthorization.
Against this backdrop came a surprise announcement last week from the Receptive Services Association of America (RSAA), which represents inbound receptive tour operators and other suppliers that cater to the international market. It is forming an internal working group to explore an alternate funding plan for the future. The plan would do away with the industry contribution and take $10 from the existing visa fees paid by incoming visitors, redirecting it to Brand USA.
This is a bad idea at a bad time. By eliminating the industry contribution and using existing funds from the U.S. Treasury to support tourism promotion, it would unravel the compromise that gave birth to Brand USA and play into the hands of the program's political opponents.
Given its role in the industry, the RSAA clearly deserves a seat at the table when it comes to debating the future of Brand USA, but that doesn't justify blindsiding the rest of the industry with such a risky proposal while the reauthorization bill is still on the table.
This could have waited.