Tourism has long been recognized as a useful tool for U.S. diplomacy. For visitors arriving from countries with state-controlled media, a holiday in America can be quite perspective shaping. Then of course there are the economic benefits. Tourists visiting the U.S. support over a million jobs and spend billions of dollars putting hundreds of millions in tax revenue into government coffers.
Changes across the globe are driving an overall increase in international tourism. As more countries develop economically, those countries begin to export increasing numbers of tourists. On the other side of that coin, these developing countries also begin to compete for tourism dollars. Many countries spend hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars to lure tourists their way. Their efforts have been fruitful as growth in demand for international tourism has been strongest for destinations in Asia and the Pacific and Europe.
As a result, while overall international tourism was rising, America’s share was shrinking. Conservatives rightly would never support using taxpayer money to fund an ad campaign for America overseas. In 2009, Congress turned to a plan that has been heralded by scholars at the conservative Heritage Foundation as an innovative solution for funding everything from defense spending to the construction of roads and public schools–a Public Private Partnership (P3).
Congress created BrandUSA for the purpose of developing and executing a unified campaign to increase America’s share of the tourism market. The P3 is funded by private donations and a once a year fee charged to visiting foreigners. The program has managed to increase international visitors to the US by an additional 1.1 million trips that have generated an estimated $3.4 billion in new visitor spending.
While the program has seen some great success, it has also had some problems. A 2012 report found some excesses and abuses of the reimbursement process as well as lax oversight. Given the duality of the program’s success and its problems, conservatives set out to reform the program as a part of its reauthorization process this year.
Congressman Gus Bilirakis (R-FL) introduced legislation that increases the experience and professionalism of BrandUSA’s board of directors, increases audit and reporting requirements and gives Congress greater oversight of the entity’s activities. Additionally, the bill requires the establishment of a stringent competitive procurement process.
Many conservatives see these reforms as a major victory in bringing transparency and accountability to a program that is producing tangible results without dipping into taxpayers pockets. The changes have garnered the support of conservatives such as Representatives Paul Gosar (R-AZ), Cynthia Lummis (R-WY) and Steve Pearce (R-NM). The bill sailed through the House Subcommittee on Commerce, Manufacturing and Trade with a 22-0 vote and yesterday, the bill passed the full Commerce Committee by voice vote on its way to the House floor.
Not everyone is happy though. Oddly, some of the very same organizations that have advocated for P3’s in the past have taken to attacking BrandUSA calling it “government money” to the tourism industry. Such a shift is as suspicious as it is confusing. But then again, everyone can’t be pleased all the time.
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