End of the Tourism Boom?

NYC & Co. is launching new marketing initiatives that provide tourists savings tips and point them to the free things they can do. Other cities, like Miami, are touting sports and building new airline terminals to attract more flights.

"The good news is, nowadays, people need to travel," said Mike Weingart, a travel specialist with Travel Leaders Agency in Houston. "It's a need, not a want, so they will make their trips. What we are seeing is that people who might've made two trips before might make one but make it longer."

Weingart added that there is room for U.S. tourism bureaus to market themselves to foreigners more. That could involve everything from television advertising to opening up offices around the world, which some of the major cities have done.

Another upside is that the U.S. government admitted six Eastern European countries and South Korea in its Visa Waiver Program. The program allows tourists from those countries to visit the U.S. for 90 days without obtaining a travel permit.

Waivers or Savers

Those additions are the federal government's first in more than 10 years. It could help cities like Los Angeles, which is relatively accessible for Asian travelers.

But feelings are mixed about whether it will really help.

According to Weissenberg, the new rules, which went into effect Monday, will be helpful. Visa issues deterred many tourists because other competitors, like Mexico, Canada and European countries, were more friendly, especially to Asian travelers.

"I think, from the travel industry point of view, that's a positive. ... But the problem is the current economic malaise has spread outside the U.S. and you are probably not going to see as many people traveling to the U.S. as you would have last year had they changed the visa rules [last year]," he added.

While it opens doors to the United States, some experts think expanding the Visa Waiver Program will not help at all because tight security regulations put many off from coming to the United States.

"The TSA and American travel has a bad reputation everywhere I have seen," said Mike Leco, founder of USATourist.com, a travel-guide Web site. "Coming into the U.S. is much more difficult and less convenient than almost any other in the country in the world."

While tourism in the upcoming holiday season is something to be concerned about, Leco added that the real impact of the higher-valued dollar and the economic crunch will be visible in early 2009, the time when most people plan out their trips for the year.

Experts say that, like all other markets, tourism will have to hit bottom before moving up. The question that remains to be answered is when.

"We look for things to get tougher before they get better," Randy Smith, chief executive of Smith Travel Research said in the firm's most recent report. "We've had an entire year in which we've had a cheap dollar fueling more international visitors, and New York to date has had another good year. We expect those two things to level, so two of the things that have been good for the U.S. lodging industry aren't going to be there in the foreseeable future."

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