The launch of a new program designed to boost international travel to the United States could increase visits to Maryland by a couple of hundred thousand people each of the next few years.
That kind of increase in international visitors would bring as much as $100 million to $150 million more in spending to the state annually, according to George Williams, state director of tourism.
"Ultimately, if the U.S. is seen more favorably, that strengthens our ability to tie into it," Williams said. "When the potential customers in Europe have more awareness of the U.S., then it's up to us to make sure it's Maryland they want to go to."
The Travel Industry Association of America is leading the charge to increase international tourism in response to a 3 percent dip that occurred in 1997-1998 -- the equivalent of 1.4 million fewer travelers -- the first decline since 1994.
Officials have attributed that decline to a weak Canadian dollar and the Asian economic crisis.
The TIA campaign began this month and will include opening offices in the United Kingdom, Japan and Brazil, and developing themed travel campaigns abroad. The group will also organize educational seminars for overseas travel professionals and open an international tourism research office. In the first year, the TIA will spend between $2.6 million and $3.8 million and increase its staff of 50 by 10 to 17 people.
The campaign themes may range from American music to adventure travel to multicultural tourism. Cities and regions that typically compete will join forces and market themselves through cooperative magazine and newspaper inserts.
"I'm not overly optimistic, but I'm confident we have to do something," said Williams, who serves on the TIA board and on its U.S.A. marketing committee. "It's a big competitive world out there. Unless we have $50 or $60 million marketing the United States, we're not going to be able to effectively beat the competition."
U.S. corporations will probably spend an additional half-billion dollars, he estimated. "You can't discount that, but we still need to have someone waving the American flag," Williams said.
The United States is the only industrialized nation without a national tourism office. The U.S. Travel and Tourism Administration closed in 1996, and Congress has not funded the U.S. National Tourism Organization, an organization supported by the travel industry.
"Rather than sit here and continue to lose market share, we felt we needed to take some action," Williams said. "We'll ultimately start trying to go up against the Australias, the Brazils, the Frances that market worldwide."
Australia, for instance, spends more than $100 million to market worldwide, he said. Even when it was open, the U.S. national tourism office operated with about $14 million, although authorized for $21 million.
"We've got to have a focal point that says the 'United States,' not 'Hilton' or 'Maryland,' but the United States," Williams said.
About 47 million travelers visited the United States in 1998, according to national statistics, with visitation in 2002 projected at 52 million, according to the U.S. Department of Commerce.
The potential for the region and Baltimore, specifically, is good, according to Michael Pina, a spokesman for the association.
"The top market we're looking at is the U.K.," he said. "Clearly, if we can get a program out there that brings more international travelers, it will mean more travel to Baltimore."
Maryland, which spends $700,000 a year to lure international visitors, ranks 25th in the United States for international travelers. But it has less than 1 percent of all international travel -- about 4 million or 5 million visitors.
Florida and California each receive 25 percent of all international travelers, New York 22 percent and Hawaii 12 percent, Pina said.
Despite a small percentage of the overall pool, those visitors to Maryland spend $300 million in the state annually, Williams said.
"Since international travelers tend to have more vacation, spend more money, visit multiple places and have an interest in culture, there's real potential for Baltimore," Pina said.
"The potential is more people in your hotels and restaurants and on tours. The car rental business will do well, and shopping is the No. 1 activity, so my guess is that the shops in the Inner Harbor will do well."