Published Thursday, October 17, 2013 at 1:00 am / Updated at 5:03 pm
Midlands Voices: Tourism surge grows Nebraska economy

Dixon is a commissioner on the Nebraska Tourism Commission. Moody is regional vice president for John Q. Hammons Hotels & Resorts.

Let's consider the strength and presence of an overlooked but sizable sector of our state's economy. It may surprise you to learn that this industry employs more than 42,000 Nebraskans and accounts for over $4 billion annual spending in our state's economy.

It is Nebraska's tourism industry. Behind agriculture and manufacturing, it is the state's third-largest industry and growing.

Twenty years ago, annual spending in our sector topped $2 billion. Today, we have doubled that number, and we have done it by working with our community stakeholders — restaurant owners, entertainment businesses, developers, hotel properties and entrepreneurs — to put Nebraska on the map for out-of-state visitors. These visitors made more than 19 million trips in 2011 alone, spending an average of $450 per visit.

Our greatest asset in helping turn our economy around is our state's beauty and the welcoming nature of our communities, which draw visitors from all over the world.

Recently, a group of Nebraska's tourism leaders met with U.S. Rep. Lee Terry. We spoke about our industry and urged his support of key legislation in Congress that would further catapult tourism throughout the country and here in Nebraska.

>> Create a smarter visa system. Between 2000 and 2010, the world travel market grew by 60 million travelers. However, in 2010, the U.S. welcomed only a fraction more than it did a decade earlier, just 1 percent.

The problem? Before visiting the United States, many international travelers from non-Visa Waiver Program countries — such as those from high-spending markets like Brazil, China and India — must first undergo a cumbersome and costly process that does not guarantee approval for a visa to visit us.

Overseas visitors pump money into our economy, $4,000 per visitor on average. However, with the uncertainty, expense and delay surrounding our visa process, many decide simply to go elsewhere. Bipartisan legislation in the U.S. Senate and House, called the JOLT Act, would correct this problem and put the U.S. back on a path to welcoming scores of additional international visitors and the dollars they promise to spend. We applaud Terry for his leadership in co-sponsoring this important legislation.

>> Trusted Traveler program. When it comes to airport security, the stakes are high and all travelers need to be kept safe. Security and efficiency do not need to be incompatible. Current airport security policy takes an inefficient one-size-fits-all approach, and this discourages some Americans from flying.

The U.S. must continue to embrace Trusted Traveler programs. Programs such as PreCheck, currently in use at several domestic airports (and soon to be offered at Omaha's Eppley Airfield), allow any American to become verified as a “trusted traveler” by volunteering background information and meeting criteria similar to what is required for airport personnel. With Trusted Traveler status, passengers are allowed to utilize a separate, more efficient screening lane and would undergo less physical screening before boarding an airplane.

>> Reauthorizing the Brand USA program. Established by Congress in 2010, Brand USA is the first nationally coordinated program for leading a global marketing strategy for the United States to international visitors. Boosting international tourism is one of the best levers for creating jobs, growing exports and driving economic growth. Virtually every sector of the U.S. economy benefits from increased tourism and travelers.

With millions of new global citizens joining the middle class and beginning to travel to other countries, Brand USA seeks to attract these visitors and the money they bring to the United States. This program requires congressional reauthorization by 2015, and we urge the Nebraska congressional delegation to continue to support its mission.

As representatives and proponents of Nebraska tourism, we ask everyone to come together to urge our elected officials to support these common-sense measures that would make travel easier, more efficient and more fun for countless numbers of visitors, both domestic and international.

In the meantime, pack a suitcase and take a trip. Think of it as your personal contribution to the economic recovery.

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