By TOM DONOHUE
WASHINGTON -- If Congress and the American people are looking for something to spur the economy and create jobs, they need look no further than travel and tourism. This is a $700 billion industry providing 7.4 million jobs and generating $186 billion in wages.
The industry has been hard hit by the global recession, which has accelerated a disturbing trend. The number of visitors to the United States declined by 2.4 million between 2000 and 2009, costing 440,000 American jobs and more than $500 billion in total travel-related spending.
What can be done to prevent another "lost decade" in travel and tourism—especially when we're scrambling for ways to kick-start the economy and create jobs? Five things.
First, we need to be smart about implementing the recently passed Travel Promotion Act.
This law creates a public-private partnership—without any taxpayer funds—to promote the United States as a travel destination abroad. Most other countries already have nationally coordinated promotion efforts. The Congressional Budget Office says that it will create some 40,000 American jobs. The public and private sectors need to follow through on their commitments to make this venture a success.
Second, once we get people to visit, we need to lay out the welcome mat, and that means reducing the "hassle factor." The wait time to clear customs should be no longer than 30 minutes. Confusing or inadequate signage in our airports must be improved. We must expand programs like Global Entry, which expedites passengers who submit to an extensive screening in advance and pay a fee. We also need to bring more countries into the Visa Waiver program—obtaining visas can be a huge hurdle to travel to America.
Third, we need a dramatic improvement in our infrastructure. Our transportation system must hum with efficiency and create the secure, comfortable environment that travelers deserve and expect.
Fourth, we must keep America an attractive destination by strengthening our commercial, cultural, and natural environments. We need to preserve our natural heritage, greet travelers with an array of choices, and ensure that new attractions, restaurants, and entertainment options have the chance to take root and grow.
Fifth, we need to be aggressive advocates for the industry. We need to beat back politically motivated attacks on legitimate business travel. We must fight attempts to treat travel and tourism as a cash cow that can fund an ever-expanding government.
A robust travel and tourism industry isn't a silver bullet for all our economic problems, but it sure would help. Let's just do it!
Donohue is president and CEO of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. The U.S. Chamber's Institute for Legal Reform owns The West Virginia Record.