WASHINGTON — The tourism industry came to Capitol Hill, looking for help to deal with big losses after the terrorist attacks.
Senators listened Friday as travel agents, hotel operators, government officials and others painted a dire picture of the nation’s $528 billion tourism industry. They asked Congress for grants, government-backed loans and federal spending to promote travel.
Senators were receptive, though it’s unclear how much they can do.
Expenses still are mounting from the military campaign in Afghanistan, tens of billions already have been set aside for the airlines and to help clean up and rebuild New York City, and others – from insurance companies to Amtrak to local water suppliers – want billions more.
“It’s very important for us to act and to act boldly,” said Sen. Byron Dorgan, D-N.D., chairman of the Senate Commerce subcommittee on tourism.
Sen. Peter Fitzgerald, R-Ill., warned that Congress probably won’t be as quick with money for tourism as it was with the $15 billion airline industry bailout.
Though he said he was sympathetic, Fitzgerald, the only senator to vote against the airline bill, said the tourism industry simply doesn’t have the “raw political clout” on Capitol Hill to get the kind of assistance the airlines got.
Congress is considering a pair of tourism-related measures: a bill sponsored by Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., that would create a $60 million travel promotion bureau in the Commerce Department, and another sponsored by Sen. Jon Kyl, R-Ariz., to give a tax credit for personal travel.
The tourism industry is vital to the country’s economy, employing almost 8 million people and generating more than $170 billion in payroll. Since the Sept. 11 attacks, though, waves of canceled trips, tours and vacations have forced tens of thousands of layoffs.
Hawaii, a tourist magnet that normally welcomes 20,000 travelers every day, has seen a 40 percent drop in visitors, said Lt. Gov. Mazie Hirono. “Hawaii could face the steepest economic decline in our recent history,” Hirono said.
Washington Mayor Anthony Williams gave a similarly bleak assessment of tourism in his city since the attacks. Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, D-N.Y., has emphasized New York City’s dependence on visitors.
Bill Marriott, chairman and chief executive of Marriott International Inc., said reservations at Marriott hotels worldwide fell by 94 percent following the attacks.
“Our big city and resort convention hotels have been hit the hardest, with massive group cancellations,” Marriott said. He predicted a wave of hotel and motel closings as companies fail to meet debt payments.
Across the country, half the hotel industry’s 2 million workers have been either laid off or have seen their work week cut to just one or two days.
“This is not getting better,” said John Wilhelm, president of the Hotel Employees & Restaurant Employees International Union. He added that the impact will be especially felt in urban areas and among the working poor who provide much of the labor.
Kyl said his Travel America Now Act, with the tax credit of $500 a person or $1,000 a couple for all personal travel taken between Sept. 11 and the end of the year, offered a “good policy prescription” to the ailing travel industry.
“It is immediate, specific and quick,” he said. “The whole idea is to provide a quick incentive to get people back to traveling again.”
Boxer’s bill, the Rediscover America Act, seeks to replace an office, dismantled years ago, that oversaw a federal program to promote domestic tourism and travel from overseas visitors.