CHARLESTON, S.C. (AP) — Reauthorizing Brand USA and fixing the nation’s aging highway infrastructure are top concerns for the tourism industry in the Southeast.
About 200 industry representatives met in Charleston this week for a meeting of the Southeast Tourism Society which comprises members from 12 states where tourism pumps $210 billion to the economy.
The group’s president and CEO, Bill Hardman, told The Associated Press that congressional reauthorization by next year of Brand USA, which promotes America to foreign tourists, is important.
The program does not use tax dollars, but relies on the $14 fee paid by each foreign traveler to the government’s Electronic System for Travel Authorization Program. The marketing effort also is funded by matching funds from the industry.
Brand USA’s website says that during the 2013 federal fiscal year, the effort attracted an estimated 1.1 million additional foreign travelers who spent $3.4 billion.
“International travel is critically important and this particular funding mechanism has put the United States back into the competitive marketplace,” Hardman said.
He also is concerned about keeping the federal Highway Trust Fund solvent and upgrading an aging highway infrastructure in a region where most visitors arrive by driving.
The society, which includes representatives from a 12-state region reaching from Alabama and Arkansas to the Virginias, was created more than 30 years ago to find ways to cooperatively attract visitors.
“We’re competitors, but at a conference like this, we’re all facing that same issue: How do you attract that traveler,” said Mike Mangeot, the commissioner of Kentucky’s Department of Travel and Tourism.
“The international traveler will come over and they will stay longer and state lines do not matter to them,” he said. “What they want is that authentic American experience.”
That experience could be the history of the South Carolina Lowcountry, taking a bourbon tour in Kentucky or sampling the Creole cooking of New Orleans.
Increasingly, state lines seem less important to domestic travelers as well. In decades past, travelers might have gone to the same beach or mountain lake year after year for their vacation.
“People now take multiple trips and they take shorter trips,” said Jay Tusa, the director of communications for the Louisiana Office of Tourism. “You might spend a weekend in Lexington and you then might spend a weekend in New Orleans.”
Hardman said that in addition to attracting travelers, the industry is often challenged making its importance known to lawmakers.
“As an industry we constantly struggle at the state, federal and local levels to justify what we do because people look at it as just fun,” he said. “But tourism is in the top 10, and many times in the top five, industries in every state in the country.”