To Draw More Foreign Visitors to U.S. Visa Waiver Program May get Tougher-Sounding Name

In hopes of convincing lawmakers to allow more foreign visitors into the U.S., top tourism officials are turning to a marketing tactic more common in the business world: a rebrand.

The nation’s Visa Waiver Program now allows travelers from 38 countries to visit the U.S. without visas. But tourism officials worry that security concerns may keep lawmakers from expanding the program to add more countries.

And so the trade group for the nation’s travel industry is pushing a new tougher-sounding name: the Security Travel Partnership.

“A lot of folks see the word ‘waiver’ and think of an overzealous third-base coach waving folks into the country,” said Jonathan Grella, executive vice president at the U.S. Travel Assn.

To pull off the rebrand, the trade group is trying to get bipartisan support from lawmakers in Washington, D.C., to rename the program and expand it to include nine new countries, including Poland, Argentina, Israel and Brazil.

“We hope rebranding can give us a fresh start to allow the program to be reconsidered on its merits,” Grella said.

The rebranding plan is part of a bigger tourism-boosting effort among travel and tourism leaders who say that the U.S. is slowly losing its position as the most popular destination for international tourists.

A strong U.S. dollar, economic turmoil in Europe, trade tensions in China and harsh anti-immigrant rhetoric by President Trump have all been blamed by tourism leaders for putting a chill on what was a dramatic surge in foreign visitors to the U.S. starting in 2010.

Although international travel grew 6% worldwide last year, international travel to the U.S. rose only 2%, with the flow of visitors from China remaining flat compared with the previous year, while trips from Germany to the U.S. dropped 7% in 2018, according to statistics released Tuesday by the World Travel & Tourism Council, a London-based nonprofit that researches and promotes tourism.

Ernest Wooden, chief executive of the Los Angeles Tourism and Convention Board, said his group is focusing on attracting travelers from India and South Korea with the help of online ads that feature Korean actor Daniel Henney and Indian actresses Malaika Arora and Sonam Kapoor.

“Attracting international travelers continues to be a top priority for the Los Angeles tourism industry as these travelers typically stay in the destination longer and spend more while here,” he said.

By Hugo Martin for LOS ANGELES TIMES

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