Nation & World

Visa Waiver Program may get tougher-sounding name

Goal is to draw more foreign visitors to the United States

Los Angeles Times/TNS

Travelers line up at the check-in counter for Air China inside Los Angeles International Airport. U.S. tourism leaders worry that the United States is losing out as the biggest destination for foreign visitors.
Los Angeles Times/TNS Travelers line up at the check-in counter for Air China inside Los Angeles International Airport. U.S. tourism leaders worry that the United States is losing out as the biggest destination for foreign visitors.

In hopes of convincing lawmakers to allow more foreign visitors into the United States, top tourism officials are turning to a marketing tactic more common in the business world — a rebrand.

The nation’s Visa Waiver Program now allows travelers from 38 countries to visit the United States without visas.

But tourism officials worry that security concerns may keep lawmakers from expanding the program to add more countries.

And so the trade group for the nation’s travel industry is pushing a new tougher-sounding name, the Security Travel Partnership.

“A lot of folks see the word ‘waiver’ and think of an overzealous third-base coach waving folks into the country,” said Jonathan Grella, executive vice president at the U.S. Travel Association.

To pull off the rebrand, the trade group is trying to get bipartisan support from lawmakers in Washington, D.C., to rename the program and expand it to include nine new countries, including Poland, Argentina, Israel and Brazil.

“We hope rebranding can give us a fresh start to allow the program to be reconsidered on its merits,” Grella said.

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The rebranding plan is part of a bigger tourism-boosting effort among travel and tourism leaders who say that the United States is slowly losing its position as the most popular destination for international tourists.

A strong U.S. dollar, economic turmoil in Europe, trade tensions in China and harsh anti-immigrant rhetoric from the White House have all been blamed by tourism leaders for putting a chill on what was a dramatic surge in foreign visitors to the United States starting in 2010.

Although international travel grew 6 percent worldwide last year, international travel to this country rose only 2 percent, according to statistics released Tuesday by the World Travel and Tourism Council, a London-based not-for-profit that researches and promotes tourism. The flow of visitors from China remaining flat compared with the previous year, while trips from Germany to the United States dropped 7 percent in 2018.

Ernest Wooden, CEO of the Los Angeles Tourism and Convention Board, said his group is focusing on attracting travelers from India and South Korea with the help of online ads that feature Korean actor Daniel Henney and Indian actors Malaika Arora and Sonam Kapoor.

“Attracting international travelers continues to be a top priority for the Los Angeles tourism industry as these travelers typically stay in the destination longer and spend more while here,” he said.

Foreign travelers are highly sought after by tourism officials because they spend up to four times more per visit than a tourist from within the United States.

But if current travel trends continue, China may surpass the U.S. as the world’s biggest travel economy within the next decade, according to the council.

Travel and tourism contributed an estimated $1.6 trillion to the United States economy last year, compared with $1.5 trillion generated for the Chinese economy, according to the council.

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By 2030, travel and tourism is expected to pour $3 trillion into the Chinese economy, thanks to a burgeoning middle class that is expected to travel heavily within and outside of the country.

The United States is expected to benefit from $2 trillion in travel and tourism spending by 2030, the council said.

Even if Washington lawmakers agree to expand the Visa Waiver Program — under whatever name — the program mandates that the country sending travelers to this country must adopt several tough security measures, such as including a digital chip in each passport with biometric information about the traveler.

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