We could use more foreign visitors

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By Jay Miller

SANTA FE — Do you know that the U.S. government doesn’t have an agency to promote tourism from foreign nations? That’s a big deal for New Mexico where tourism is the state’s largest private employer.

New Mexico receives a big chunk of foreign tourists who want to see what the Wild West really looks like. They want to see Indians, Spanish churches, Billy the Kid Land, UFO sites, museums and galleries.

State Tourism Secretary Michael Cerletti says, “The United States is virtually the only country in the developed world without a national tourism office.”

But that is about to change. Congress has just passed a Travel Promotion Act. The New Mexico congressional delegation was active in supporting the legislation.

At one time, tourism was an important part of the U.S. Commerce Department. In 1977, New Mexico’s own Fabian Chavez was in charge of tourism as an assistant secretary of Commerce.

Chavez’s adventures in that office, including a visit with Fidel Castro, are recounted in his recent book, “Taking on Giants,” published by the University of New Mexico Press.

How can Congress add another service in the middle of a raging recession? It doesn’t cost any taxpayer money. The Corporation for Travel Promotion will be funded by contributions from the travel industry and fees paid by foreign travelers to the United States.

It will be governed by an 11-member board of representatives from the travel industry. The corporation will be managed by an executive director and will be tied to the U.S. Department of Commerce.

Economists estimate the Travel Promotion Office will generate $4 billion annually from foreign travel. Sec. Cerletti says that will add nicely to the estimated $3.6 billion in business New Mexico already generates from foreign travel.

A similar proposal to this year’s Legislature by the New Mexico travel industry for a small tax increase that would be borne by the industry. Instead lawmakers cut the state Tourism budget by 60 percent. Go figure.

Imposing fees on tourists to generate revenue to attract more tourists may sound a bit Draconian but it is definitely not what bothers foreign tourists the most about travel to the United States.

Our nation is one of the most unwelcoming in the world. Our transportation security seems based almost entirely on reacting to everything that has happened in the past.

Unfortunately, terrorists are smarter than your average TSA thinkers. They never try the same trick twice. Consequently, while we are devising elaborate new travel restrictions to add on to all the others, they are implementing a new plan.

In our many travels, we have not found travel between other countries inconvenient. But when we get on a plane headed back home, we get a taste of what foreign visitors endure.

We don’t have to pay for visas or get photographed and fingerprinted but we go through an extreme security check. I have endured questioning and long delays because someone else named John Miller (that’s my legal name) transfers large sums of money internationally.

The extreme part came when my 89-year-old mother-in-law was strip searched in Brussels. The security personnel noticed my obvious irritation and said, “Sorry sir, but your country requires it.”

I fully understand they may have been singling out Americans in order to deliver a message to our country to cool it a little. And perhaps that’s what we need to do.

Cerletti tells us the United States had a nine-percent market share of international travel a few years ago. It is now six percent. That’s not helping our economic recovery.

Perhaps our nation’s new travel promotion office could be of most service by paying a visit to the Homeland Security Department and suggesting ways to make the United States a more desirable place to visit for business, study or leisure.

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