Barely a year after it was christened and launched, the U.S. Travel and Tourism Administration has run aground on the reefs at the Office of Management and Budget.
In its fiscal 1984 budget proposals for the Commerce Department, the OMB has eliminated all funds for the tourism agency, alarming industry representatives and members of Congress who saw the agency's creation last year as a significant victory in a 10-year struggle to win a broader commitment to tourism.
"We're quite concerned," said a staff aide at the 180-member House Travel and Tourism Caucus, which had hoped for an increase in funds for the tiny agency. "The travel administration's budget is the top priority of the caucus in 1983."
The agency was established under the National Tourism Policy Act, signed into law by President Reagan in October, 1981. The act upgraded the old U.S. Travel Service and established a new undersecretary to run it.
That Reagan signed the law and named a close family friend as the first undersecretary was seen by many in the travel industry as a sign that their arguments about the economic importance of international tourism had found sympathetic ears.
They thought they had it made in another important quarter as well, when OMB Director David A. Stockman dropped his opposition to the new agency in a July, 1981, letter to Rep. James D. Santini (D-Nev.), chairman of the tourism caucus.
But someone at OMB took a whack at the new agency anyway -- the "GS14 green oracle with the sharp ax," Santini growls. The fiscal 1983 budget request sliced the agency's budget from $7.6 million to $5 million before the 1984 proposal reduced it to nothing. Congress is likely to maintain funding at $7.6 million under a continuing resolution -- still a far cry from the $14 million the agency received in 1978.
The Commerce travel office has long been a favorite target for budget-snippers, who argue that the government doesn't need to supplement the millions that the travel industry already spends on advertising.
Its supporters counter that the thousands of small businesses that comprise the travel industry do their advertising for domestic travelers, and they can't afford to sell America overseas.
The travel office's mission is to lure visitors to the United States from other countries, mainly through brochures distributed by its offices in six foreign countries. At stake is a $12 billion-a-year export industry, the nation's third largest behind agriculture and chemicals, according to the General Accounting Office.
"Over the last few years we've been losing our market share of international visitors," said Jim Gaffigan of the Travel and Tourism Goverment Affairs Policy Council, a coalition of trade associations formed this year to work for more federal help. The United States gets 8 percent of the foreign tourists now, and "that may be down to 6 percent soon," Gaffigan said.
In the first nine months of this year, foreign tourism in the United States declined for the first time in 20 years. Commerce officials attributed most of the decline to a drop in tourists from Mexico, because of that country's financial crisis.
However, the number of visitors from Great Britain, West Germany, France and Canada declined as well, and industry officials worry that they're seeing the start of a trend.
The tourism agency has been saved in the past by Congress, where members are keenly aware that tourism ranks in the top three industries in 40 states, and it may come to the rescue again this time.
"Every administration gets the recommendation from deep below in OMB to cut the travel agency budget," said a congressional aide. "We think there's a bias against tourism because it's fun."