A bill is moving through Congress that could help boost the local economy and create jobs by drawing international tourists to Western North Carolina.
The legislation would charge overseas visitors a $10 fee. The revenue would be used to market the United States as a travel destination internationally. The promotion would be carried out by a nonprofit created for the purpose.
The bill comes as welcome news to Karen Wilmot, executive director of Swain County’s Chamber of Commerce.
“It’s very cost-prohibitive for us to focus a great deal of attention abroad,” said Wilmot. “I look forward to the initiative. It’s an untapped market, and that’s what we’re all looking for.”
Congressman Heath Shuler, D-Waynesville, cosponsored the Tourism Promotion Act. It passed the House overwhelmingly. A similar bill passed in the Senate, and the two versions are currently being reconciled.
“International travelers will provide a much-needed economic jolt to the U.S. economy,” said Shuler.
The fee would only apply to visitors who do not need a visa to enter the U.S., including those from Australia, New Zealand, and most of Europe.
Most local entities concerned with tourism rely on the N.C. Division of Tourism to go after international tourists. The state agency recruited two groups of travel writers from the U.K. and Germany in the past year to visit Western North Carolina.
According to Wilmot, the German group thoroughly enjoyed visiting Cherokee and riding motorcycles through area roads.
In Wilmot’s experience, many international visitors who come to WNC hail from the U.K., Germany and Japan, all countries that would be affected by the new legislation.
Wilmot said these travelers are drawn to the Southern Appalachian culture, Cherokee heritage and the scenery.
“The natural beauty would speak to anyone no matter what nationality,” said Wilmot.
In addition, Western North Carolina has many small towns with a “lost Americana feel,” said Wilmot.
Ashley Rice, who handles marketing for the Haywood County Tourism Development Authority, said there’s no money in their advertising budget going overseas right now. But the market clearly holds potential, she said.
Rice said the touring group from the U.K. enjoyed golf, fly-fishing, and hiking in the area.
“The feel of the mountains does remind them of home,” said Rice.
Visiting the Appalachians is less expensive than many U.S. destinations, Rice said.
According to Rice, there is a “fair amount” of overseas travelers headed to local visitor’s centers. For example, a few from South Africa and Italy recently visited one in Canton.
While the United States has no shortage of travel destinations, Shuler said the Great Smoky Mountain National Park is the most visited national park in the country and is sure to benefit from the bill.
Shuler said even if a few thousand more visitors come to the area annually for the next four years, word of mouth and repeat business would help generate an increase in revenues.
The act is designed to attract up to 1.6 million new international visitors to the United States, creating nearly 40,000 jobs in the first year.
While many other foreign governments promote their countries abroad, this would be the U.S. government’s first foray into this type of marketing venture.
It is not clear yet how the nonprofit would market specific areas of the U.S., like Western North Carolina.
For now, North Carolina lags far behind other states in attracting international tourists, with 355,000 visitors from abroad in 2008. It is the 17th most visited state in the country, while New York, California, Florida, Nevada, and Hawaii comprise the top five.