U.S. tourism measure draws mixed industry reviews

ATLANTA, March 4 Thu Mar 4, 2010 5:16pm EST

ATLANTA, March 4 (Reuters) - The U.S. travel industry is hoping that a new tourism law will reverse a decline in international travelers to the country in recent years and create jobs, but some say the measure could backfire.

U.S. President Barack Obama on Thursday signed into law the Travel Promotion Act, a measure that will set up an 11-member board to develop a national multi-channel marketing campaign to draw foreign travelers and provide information on travel policies.

Industry executives say the act can help strengthen the U.S. economy and revive the sector, which has taken a hit as the recession dampened demand for air travel and led consumers to cut back discretionary spending at hotels and restaurants.

Jim Abrahamson, president of the Americas region for InterContinental Hotels Group (IHG.L), the world's largest hotel company, said there are lessons to be learned from other countries that use aggressive marketing campaigns to attract visitors.

"Today we're a marketing and messaging-driven economy," Abrahamson said. "We have to keep our product in front of customers."

Oxford Economics, a United Kingdom-based independent consulting firm, estimated that the initiative could bring in as many as 1.6 million new visitors to the United States a year and create 40,000 U.S. tourism jobs.

But some in the travel industry expressed concern about a $10 fee that will be charged every two years to visitors from countries that participate in the Visa waiver program. That fee, along with voluntary private sector contributions, will be used to pay for the program.

"We generally oppose tourism taxes, which this is," said Steve Lott, a North America spokesman for the International Air Transport Association, which represents 230 airlines worldwide. "We're concerned about retaliatory action by other countries."

Lott added that national resources would best be directed toward addressing barriers faced by global travelers in the United States. For example, cutting the time required for foreigners to obtain a visa and minimizing security hassles at U.S. airports would do much to improve perceptions about traveling to America, Lott said.

The non-profit U.S. Travel Association said there has been a drop in overseas travel to the United States each year since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. Last year, 2.4 million fewer overseas visitors came to the United States than in 2000, it said.

(Reporting by Karen Jacobs; Editing by Richard Chang)

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