WASHINGTON – As chairman of Disney Parks and Resorts,Jay Rasulo said he spends a lot of time talking about magic. Most of the time,it has to do with fairy dust,mouse ears and talking cats,but he said America's people and culture are just as magical.
“People simply need to visit here to feel this magic,” he said.
This is why Rasulo,along with colleagues in the travel industry,are urging lawmakers to make more of an effort to increase the number of foreign visitors to the U.S. each year.
Citing a research study by the Discover America Partnership,traveling to the U.S. makes visitors 74 percent more likely to feel “extremely favorably” about the nation.
Rasulo leads the partnership with Stevan Porter,president of the Americas InterContinental Hotels Group,and other travel industry business leaders.
The partnership's plan,”A blueprint to discover America,” focuses on making the entry process at airports faster and more efficient,improving the visa system and communicating the idea of a friendlier United States.
According to the partnership's 2006 study,travelers rated America's entry process as the “world's worst,” and two-thirds of the those surveyed feared they would be detained at the border because of a simple mistake or misstatement.
An independent polling firm conducted the study,which was based on a survey of more than 2,000 travelers worldwide.
The plan would expand an initiative introduced a year ago by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Department of Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff to increase travel with “secure borders and open doors.”
The group views the Rice-Chertoff plan as a step in the right direction but wants the process expanded and expedited,said Porter,Discover America's chairman. The group's plan is a more comprehensive vision,a logical next step,he added.
Some legislators are backing the idea.
While many of the nation's allies have engaged in aggressive campaigns,fueled with substantial investments to bring visitors to their countries,the U.S. has become less aggressive,Sen. Byron Dorgan,D-N.D.,said Wednesday at a hearing before the Senate Committee on Commerce,Science and Transportation.
“I believe that you can develop an approach that recognizes and addresses our security interests and at the same time does more to promote our travel and tourism,” said Dorgan, chairman of the tourism subcommittee.
But the plan is not without critics. The main concern has to do with funding. The blueprint would require $300 million. It amounts to $50 million to reform the visa process,$50 million to fix the entry process and $200 million in promotion.
The group proposed that the funding come from tax-free bonds,a $5 exit fee on visitors leaving the U.S. on airlines,or from a charge of approximately $10 on airline tickets.
The Air Transport Association opposes any proposed fees on airline travel.
“Our airlines are eager to bring more international visitors to America so they can experience first hand what we already know: America is a great country to do business with,and to visit,” James May,the ATA's chief executive officer,said in his testimony before the committee. “While I appreciate a warm welcome,it is really hard for me to support charging passengers a $5 fee to purchase a smile and a greeting.”
Geoff Freeman,executive director of the Discover America Partnership,said the group was just making suggestions about funding options.
“We have to find a way to fund this that works for everyone,” he said,adding that the group will work with other organizations to accomplish their goals. “This is going to require a lot of work,but we need to send a clear message to Congress that we need reform and we need it now.”