Some in Congress seem to think the federal government can do a better job marketing and promoting tourism to America than the $1.5 trillion industry that exists to attract and accommodate visitors. How? By doing what government does best: taxation. Since 2011, the government has been taxing tourists and some in Congress want to keep it that way.
Under the Travel Promotion Act of 2009, Congress established the Corporation for Trade Promotion, otherwise known as Brand USA, to promote international travel to America and educate would-be-tourists on the visa process. Until 2015, Brand USA is funded by private contributions which are matched by the federal government up to $100 million. These matching funds come from a fee tacked onto visitors from nations that are American allies and friends participating in the Visa Waiver Program, countries like England, Australia, South Korea, and Chile. Today the Energy and Commerce Committee will consider H.R. 4450 to reauthorize Brand USA.
In essence, Brand USA has served to line the pockets of a politically connected few.
Proponents amazingly argue that 1.1 million tourists, 53,181 jobs, and $3.4 million in tourist spending resulted from Brand USA efforts in 2013. But international tourism has been increasing since 2003, long before Brand USA was established in March 2011. Further, tourism could hardly be called a struggling industry in America: according to the Department of Commerce, international visitors spent a record $180.7 billion in 2013. And even if it were, such a government program would still not be justified.
It is also hard to see how a government corporation is doing a better job of marketing travel to the U.S. A 2012 Senate report showed abuse of Brand USA’s funds, such as board members working for rates of $258 an hour and funds being diverted to lobby despite a clear prohibition from Congress. In essence, Brand USA has served to line the pockets of a politically connected few. And this, funded by the very tourists Brand USA aims to attract: half of the top ten countries that spend the most in tourism in the U.S. are part of the Visa Waiver Program and thus charged with the extra fee to pay for Brand USA.
Tourism is important to America’s economy and a helpful diplomatic tool as visitors gain a better understanding and appreciation for Americans and what this nation has to offer. The federal government also has a role in aiding this process – such as eliminating the overbearing 100 percent visa interview requirement or expanding the Visa Waiver Program – but Brand USA is certainly not one of them.