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Klobuchar: Economy visits tourism with 20 percent decline

U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar, right, DFL-Minn., shares a light moment with state Sen. Mary Olson, DFL-Bemidji, during a meeting on tourism issues Wednesday night at the Beltrami County Administration Building. Pioneer Photo/Monte Draper

Northern Minnesota resorts, seeing a 20 percent decline this summer, need a shot in the arm, says U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar, DFL-Minn.

That shot could come from a bill she's co-sponsoring to market abroad for more foreign visitors to the United States, funded by a $10 fee on foreign traveler's visas.

"Since 9/11 we've lost 20 percent of the international tourism market in this country," Klobuchar said Wednesday evening during a roundtable discussion at the Beltrami County Administration Building with about 25 officials. "That has little to do with the economy right now, as the trend really started visa restrictions and how difficult it was for people to come visit,"

The average amount of money spent by a foreign tourist in the United States is $4,500, she said. "It's one of our biggest exports -- it's something we're bringing in, and not sending money out."

But the recession is affecting northern Minnesota resorts, said Jack Frost, a Beltrami County commissioner and resort owner who belongs to several state resort associations.

"I would suspect that we're going do be down roughly 20 percent," Frost said.

"That's what I'm hearing; I heard it up on the North Shore, too," Klobuchar said.

"By and large, I'm really excited about the notion of garnering more international trade," Frost said, adding he had clients from Germany this summer who came to the resort based on a recommendation from a foreign exchange student.

"We're going to be done 8 to 10 percent in occupancy but in revenue we're going to be down more like 20 to 30 percent," Ed Fussy, another local resort owner, said. "Another thing that concerns us is our increase in overhead, electric and stuff is just going up drastically."

Klobuchar is co-sponsor of the Travel Promotion Act, authored by Sen. Byron Dorgan, D-N.D. She held several hearings on the bill as chairwoman of the Senate Subcommittee on Competitiveness, Innovation and Export Promotion.

The Travel Promotion Act would establish a public-private partnership to promote the United States as a premier international travel destination. The legislation calls for travel promotion to be paid for by private sector contributions and a $10 fee on foreign travelers who enter the United States.

Other countries charge a similar fee, sometimes $20 to $25.

The bill, which requires no money from the American taxpayer, is estimated to attract 1.6 million new international visitors to the country and add $4 billion to the U.S. economy.  An analysis by the U.S. Travel Association states that the program would create nearly 40,000 new American jobs.

The measure awaits action on the Senate floor. A similar version was approved by the House last year, and has only recently been reintroduced.

"We're really trying to put a focus on tourism, with both smaller and larger communities in the United States," Klobuchar said of her subcommittee. "There isn't as much focus on tourism in our country as there is in other countries."

It's especially important to Minnesota, she said.

"We spend $50 million a year on bait and worms in our state," Klobuchar said of the importance of tourism in Minnesota. "We want to promote staying and taking vacations in Minnesota, close to home, which I know would help this area."

She's practicing that this week with a weekl0ng trip through northern Minnesota with her husband, John, and daughter, Abigail, through the North Shore, Bemidji, International Falls and the Iron Range.

"We're spending our whole week in northern Minnesota to send that message," she said.

Increased International tourism is also needed, she said.

The trust fund established by the Travel Promotion Act "will be used to promote tourism in America, not just in big venues but also the smaller venues," Klobuchar said. "We are losing ground to other countries that put substantial sums into tourism."

She said there isn't fewer tourists worldwide, just that they are going to Denmark and France rather than America.

"We need to have foreign travelers come to the Mall of America and then spend a week in northern Minnesota fishing," Klobuchar said.

Even the Bemidji area sees an impact from foreign travelers, said Gayle Quistard, executive director of VisitBemidji. Last year, eight Canadian provinces and 59 other countries were represented in the Bemidji Tourist Center's visitor's guest book.

"We do have a lot of international business through here," she said. "It's important to our industry here."

Pam Kelsey, who owns a downtown Bemidji jewelry store, said international travel has dropped since 9/11.

"That's good for me to hear," Klobuchar said, "as people think that's just in Las Vegas. I have made the point that it is not."

Kelsey said she likes the idea of the $10 fee on foreign visas. "We also need a simpler way for people to come here, and not make it so it is difficult for them."

With the U.S. now under new passport rules, Klobuchar said she wants to check while in Baudette and International Falls how border crossings are being handled. Anyone -- including a U.S. citizen -- must now have a passport for entry into this country.

International travel is also important to the Bemidji Regional Airport, said Executive Director Harold "Van" Leeuwen. He urged placing a U.S. Customs Office in Bemidji to make travel easier.

"One of the things that hurts us is that we don't have Customs her in Bemidji ," Leeuwen said. "That means they go somewhere else to go through Customs and we may not get them here. If they fly into the Cities, they don't come up here because it's a four-hour trip, or flights might be full."

Bemidji enplanements are down 25 percent, he said, some destinations from Bemidji are overseas.

He also said there has been a huge drop in corporate aircraft activity, which can be a lucrative business.

"This meeting was incredibly helpful," Klobuchar said in an interview. "I'm pushing for that travel bill and I think it will help our state, I really do. But to hear actual stories from Bemidji about it was a very good thing to hear."