Tourism: Easing of Travel Rules Could Aid Las Vegas - Monday 6th of February 2006

LAS VEGAS, Nevada A federal push to ease restrictions on foreign travel expected to be announced today could bring more big-spending international visitors to Nevada and Las Vegas, state travel leaders said Monday.

Tension between the State Department, which works to improve the nation's image abroad; and Homeland Security, which often upsets foreigners when tightening America's borders; has been increasingly common after 2001's terror attacks were launched by foreigners within the United States.

Despite continuing security concerns, many U.S. leaders have called for a more welcoming approach to global travel at the federal level. And fortunately for American business interests, such change could soon be under way.

U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff have scheduled a press conference today at 7: 30 a.m. PST, according to the Travel Industry Association of America, a Washington trade group.

Efforts to confirm the event's subject through the departments were unsuccessful Monday because of the federal holiday.

But the White House Bulletin, a McLean, Va.-based subscription service, reported that the Cabinet members will unveil a comprehensive program designed to ease foreign travelers' access.

Plans include "model airports" with streamlined customs procedures and greeters who will assist travelers in their native language. Public Diplomacy Watch, a tourism Web log, speculated that a new international registered traveler program could also result.

Bruce Bommarito, a TIA board member and director of the Nevada Commission on Tourism, said today's expected changes would open the nation's door "quite a bit more."

"We always support security and safety in our country," Bommarito said by telephone from Los Angeles. "But beyond that, we really think that we need to improve our public image around the world and make it much easier for the right people to travel here."

Rossi Ralenkotter, the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority's president and a fellow Travel Association board member, added, "Whatever can be done to eliminate some of the red tape ... is important for Las Vegas."

Increased foreign visitation could have a huge financial effect on Nevada's travel-dependent economy.

The convention authority estimates that Las Vegas hosted more than 3.37 million international travelers in 2004, its best annual total since 2000's reported 4 million; with marketing programs growing overseas, it hopes to lure nearly 6.5 million by 2009.

Separately, the U.S. Department of Commerce in June said Nevada's nearly 1.63 million overseas travelers ranked fifth among U.S. states and territories in 2004. That ranking did not include visitors from Canada and Mexico.

For the past few years, the state tourism commission has aggressively promoted Nevada before millions of potential Chinese travelers. Bommarito's group has led multiple trade missions to Asia, and oversaw June 2004's opening of the first state-sponsored tourism office in Beijing.

Changes are already under way to improve Chinese access to U.S. travel visas, Bommarito said, including extending visas from six months to one year and allowing mail-in renewals. The Chinese government recently told him 480,000 U.S. travel visas were issued to Chinese through October of last year, up from approximately 280,000 in all of 2004. He expects that figure will top 1 million next year.

Extensive paperwork and lengthy visa processing are frequently cited as obstacles to U.S. travel, Ralenkotter said. Citing high foreign attendance at this month's International Consumer Electronics Show as an example, he said improved access could also bolster the local convention industry.

"The (federal) dialogue is important as we go forward because we're in a global economy and a global travel economy," Ralenkotter said.

He credited the Travel Association and its affiliated Travel Business Roundtable for raising awareness at the "highest levels of government."

The Commerce Department said foreign visitors to the United States dipped from 51 million in 2000 to 49 million last year. Many experts blame post-Sept. 11 visa restrictions and anti-American sentiment among many foreign travelers.

The World Tourism Organization also reported last year that the United States hosted 6.1 percent of international arrivals worldwide in 2004, below its 1992 peak of 9.4 percent.

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