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Minnesota tourism in troubled times

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opinion Bemidji, 56619
Bemidji Minnesota P.O. Box 455 56619

As we head into summer, many Minnesota families are reviewing their household budgets and wondering what kind of vacation, if any, they can take this year. Minnesota's tourism industry is wondering, too.

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That's why I chaired a Senate Commerce subcommittee hearing this past month on "tourism in troubled times," and held hearings in Minnesota focusing on the challenges and opportunities facing the tourism industry in the current economy.

Minnesotans understand the vital importance of tourism for our economy and way of life.

From big hotels in the Twin Cities to lodges on the North Shore, from B&B's in scenic small towns to fishing resorts on our 10,000 lakes, Minnesota has a large tourism industry. It generates $11 billion annually for Minnesota's economy and accounts for 11 percent of the state's total private sector employment.

Many Minnesota communities have successfully developed tourism's economic potential.

Lanesboro is a good example. After being in decline for decades, this small town in southeastern Minnesota reinvented itself as a thriving tourist magnet, featuring historic buildings, charming B&B's and 60 miles of paved bike trails along the Root River and through picturesque valleys.

But, in Minnesota and nationally, the tourism industry is feeling the impact of the severe economic downturn. Nearly 200,000 travel-related jobs disappeared in 2008. The U.S. Commerce Department forecasts the loss of an additional 250,000 jobs in 2009.

Even in the midst of a troubled economy, we can still focus on opportunities to strengthen our tourism industry.

First, there is the opportunity to make sure families know about affordable travel deals.

Although many families are rethinking their vacation plans, there are still reasonably-priced options like day trips, weekend getaways and short vacations.

This could actually boost Minnesota tourism. Instead of traveling to Florida or California, more Minnesotans may choose to enjoy less expensive vacations that are closer to home this year.

At our Senate hearing, we heard from the CEO of Travelocity, who said that families are looking for the right vacation at the right price. It's a buyers' market, and families deserve to know what travel bargains are available.

Second, we must do more to promote the U.S. as a destination for international travel.

This is especially important for Minnesota. We share a border with Canada; we have an airport with nonstop flights from Asia and Europe; we're home to the world-renowned Mayo Clinic; and, of course, we have the Mall of America.

In economic terms, international tourism counts as an "export." Instead of shipping our product to a customer overseas, the customer comes here to spend money on our goods and services. International visitors to the U.S. spend an average of $4,500 per person per trip.

But things aren't going as well as they should. Since 2000, America's share of the world travel market has decreased by nearly 20 percent.

We must recapture this lost market share. As a first step, I'm cosponsoring the Travel Promotion Act, which would create a public-private partnership to market the U.S. as a premier international travel destination.

Finally, we must encourage both small and large companies to resume responsible, productive spending on business and convention travel. The highly-publicized excesses of a few bad actors should not deter companies from making legitimate investments in travel which is essential to the success of their business.

Tourism is a powerful engine for job creation and economic growth, both in Minnesota and nationally. To revive our economy, we need to get this engine back on track and moving forward at full steam.

Amy Klobuchar, DFL-Minn., is a member of the U.S. Senate.

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