This op-ed appeared in The Spokesman-Review on May 14, 2022

By David Blandford and Meg Winchester

The United States has a well-earned reputation as one of the most desirable destinations for travelers from all over the world. However, the COVID-19 pandemic severely limited global travel, impacting the small businesses and workers that depend on international guests. Fortunately, Congress has come together to provide much needed support to this vital sector by passing the Restoring Brand USA Act.

After two long years of pandemic restrictions, every sector of our statewide tourism industry is eager to accelerate the return of visitors, especially those from other countries who stay longer and spend more here in Washington.

But, despite our border with Canada and SEA’s wealth of overseas flights, international travel has been slow to recover from primary markets such as Canada and the United Kingdom. That’s why we are so grateful to Sen. Maria Cantwell and Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers for their bipartisan leadership passing the Restoring Brand USA Act, which is a smart public-private partnership that supports American jobs and economic activity by promoting international travel to the United States. Its renewal is vital to jump-starting international travel to Washington, and best of all, it operates at no cost to U.S. taxpayers.

With Sen. Cantwell serving as chair of the U.S. Senate Commerce Committee and Rep. McMorris Rodgers serving as the top Republican of the U.S. House Energy and Commerce Committee, our Congressional delegation played an outsized role in shaping and shepherding this essential legislation. It’s encouraging to see elected officials in different parties and chambers working together to help pass a bill that matters to Washington State’s tourism and hospitality workers and businesses.

While our industry works in concerted partnership to restore international visitation, marketing muscle of Brand USA will greatly help drive visitors back to Spokane, Seattle and other cities, rural and underserved communities, wine regions, national parks, and scenic byways, expediting recovery for communities and businesses.

The passage of the Restoring Brand USA Act as part of a larger funding package shows that Congress understands the essential role international inbound travel plays in boosting our economy. Prior to the pandemic, international travel was our nation’s top services export and the second-largest industry export overall – generating $233 billion in export spending and supporting nearly 1.2 million American jobs.

Unfortunately, the pandemic severely diminished international visitation. While domestic leisure travel is returning to pre-pandemic levels, international travel spending in the U.S. is still approximately 78% below 2019 levels.

Economic forecasts predict that international travel spending will not recover until 2024 without this significant federal support.

The reduction in international travel to the U.S. has also impacted Brand USA’s funding source. Half of its budget is generated through a fee that international visitors from Visa Waiver Program countries pay when applying to come to the United States. Without visitors coming in during the pandemic, that support evaporated and without federal assistance could have remained dry for years to come. The recently passed Restoring Brand USA Act provided one-time emergency funding to restart and reinvigorate the work of bringing travelers back to Washington.

Brand USA can help travel, hospitality and other service sectors that depend on international visitors by restarting promotional campaigns in critically important source markets and driving the demand that will revive the American travel economy. As an added bonus, this support comes without taxpayer funds. The source of this one-time emergency funding is from previously collected surplus visitor fees. For every dollar spent through Brand USA, the return on investment is 25 to 1.

As we move ahead to the next stage of the pandemic, we are grateful to Sen. Cantwell and Rep. McMorris Rodgers for continuing to stand up for Washington’s travel and hospitality workers. They understand the importance of getting this vital sector of our economy back on track as soon as possible.

David Blandford is executive director at State of Washington Tourism in Seattle. Meg Winchester is president and CEO of Visit Spokane