A federal bill receiving bipartisan support could draw more Canadian visitors to northern Minnesota, lawmakers say.
At the same time, the Travel Promotion Act could create 40,000 jobs and reduce the federal deficit by more than $425 million over 10 years.
Originally, U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar thought the bill might boost international travel to big cities such as Las Vegas or New York.
"I found out that places like Duluth, Grand Marais, Brainerd were very interested in this because they've seen a decrease in tourism from Canada, which is so important to them," Klobuchar, DFL-Minn., said Thursday in a telephone news conference.
"Visitors come to the Mall of America from Japan and other places," she said. "The more we can focus on this in terms of jobs - one out of 18 people in this country are employed in the tourism industry ... it helps certain parts of our economy."
The bill, authored by U.S. Sen. Byron Dorgan, D-N.D., would create a nationally coordinated travel promotion campaign through a private-public partnership that seeks to reverse the slide in tourism in the United States since 9/11.
The bill was approved by the U.S. House last year and Dorgan is optimistic for bipartisan support this year as part of jobs legislation.
There are 2.4 million fewer visitors to the United States last year than came in 2000, Dorgan said in the news conference. "After the terrorist attacks, our country ... was sending messages that it will be harder to come to America. It's going to be harder to get a visa, and a lot of people around the world felt that they weren't welcome here."
Other countries have picked up the slack by marketing their locations for vacationers, such as Italy or France, he said.
"The result is we've lost opportunity, we've lost jobs and we've lost the opportunity to especially to have people come here and see what America's about," Dorgan said. "To come here and to leave here is to have a great impression of this country."
The Travel Promotion Act creates a Corporation for Travel Promotion, an independent, non-profit corporation, to run the travel promotion campaign. The program will be funded by a nominal $10 fee paid by foreign travelers from Visa Waiver Program countries and matching contributions from the travel industry.
Dorgan said the fee is insignificant as other countries also levy special fees. For example, Australia levies a $37 departure fee and an entry fee that ranges from $19 to $70. Mexico and the Philippines also charge fees.
"This $10 fee is not significant, it is not going to be significant to deter or diminish the appetite of those who wish to come here," Dorgan said.
"The analysis of the bill clearly showed that it would decrease the deficit and add money to the federal budget, and also add jobs," said Klobuchar. "It's clearly a drop in the bucket when you look at what it will add."
Klobuchar added that the $10 fee will not apply to Canadians entering the United States.
"We did a tourism event there (in Bemidji)," Klobuchar said. "We're hopeful that this will bring more Canadians in, that's why I'm interested in this bill, and so is Bryon with North Dakota."
Problems of a year ago to gain a passport have greatly diminished, she said. Last year, a new rule took effect that requires a passport or passport card for entry into the United States from Canada.
"I haven't heard, and I will visit some of the passport offices this summer, but local officials say it went a little better with this transition than we thought in terms of people getting used to this and knowing what they needed," she said.
Also, Klobuchar said officials at the border "have been very practical about this and haven't been jerking people around as much than what was happening a year or so ago."
It will also be important to market the U.S. opportunities and how to get a passport, she said.
"I know Bemidji, the home of Paul Bunyan and Babe the Blue Ox, will be right in the front for wanting tourists to come," Klobuchar said.
Dorgan said he's visited several border areas, including Pembina, and "it's actually gone better than I thought it would. We've not had major problems."
The U.S. has actually not seen lower Canadian visitor numbers, argues Roger Dow, president and CEO of the U.S. Travel Association, but the transition could have been smoother had the Travel Promotion Act been law.
"When it was announced a few years ago, (the new rule) crashed the U.S. passport system because of misunderstanding," Dow said. "Had we had this bill in place, we would have been able to do the communications necessary for Canadians and Americans to understand exactly what was taking place.
"We have not lost Canadian travelers - our numbers are very strong," he added.
The bill will create bills and is a critical communications vehicle, Dow said. "It is estimated this bill will create 40,000 jobs and billions of dollars in new revenue. When you stimulate travel, it is a very effective way to get people back to work quickly because the infrastructure is there. You have the hotels, the airlines, the attractions, they don't have to be built."
The rest of the world has found a "gold mine," he said, with an increase of 31 percent the last 10 years. Meanwhile, the United States has lost 9 percent in foreign visitors, a loss of $500 billion.
"This is all new money, it's not switching money from one pocket to another," Dow said. "People come and spend that money and go home. We don't have to educate their children, we do not have to have health care for them, so it's a very valuable increase to our economy,"
Klobuchar said the average foreign visitor spends $4,500 while in the United States.
"When you look at the breadth of America, it really sends a message around the world that we want their business," Dow said. "The private sector can just do this on their own, we have to overcome the perception that's been built up of 'Fortress America.'"