U.S. Senator Amy Klobuchar (D-MN) and Senator Roy Blunt (R-MO), co-chairs of the Senate Travel and Tourism Caucus, introduced legislation that will help improve tourism across the country by studying the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on the travel and tourism industry and identifying policy recommendations to assist the hard-hit industry.

The Protecting Tourism in the United States Act directs the U.S. Department of Commerce, in consultation with the United States Travel and Tourism Advisory Board and the heads of other relevant federal agencies, to study the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on different sectors of the travel and tourism industry.

The bill also requires the Commerce Department to consult with representatives from a range of travel and tourism sectors and provide policy recommendations for promoting and assisting the travel and tourism industry. To facilitate action on policies that provide immediate relief to the industry, the bill requires completion of an interim study within three months of the bill being enacted. Companion legislation is led in the House by U.S. Representatives Kathy Castor (D-FL-14) and Fred Upton (R-MI-06), which passed the House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Consumer Protection and Commerce in September.

“From Lake Superior to the Mall of America, Minnesota is home to exceptional tourist destinations—but as travel has been limited during the coronavirus pandemic, the tourism industry has been hit particularly hard,” Klobuchar said. “This bipartisan legislation will help support the travel and tourism industry, which will boost local economies throughout Minnesota and across the country.”

Convention and Visitor Bureau Director Pete Schultz said he appreciates any effort surrounding tourism legislation.

"Summer tourism was a mixed bag for International Falls, Ranier and Rainy Lake," he said. "People did want to fit in some vacation and favored less crowded places. I suspect that is why camping and houseboating in the park saw some increases. I also suspect that is why some of our tourism operators were able to maintain over the summer. However, the closing of the International border and reconstruction of Highway 53 was devastating to another segment of our tourism industry... tourism operations everywhere are trying very hard to assure the safety of visitors, workers and residents while encouraging travel. Studying what policies might best accomplish that goal would be positive."

International Falls Chamber of Commerce President Tricia Heibel agreed. 

"Tourism is a critical industry for our area and it is only growing in importance to our local economy," she said. "Between Voyageurs National Park and the Canadian border-crossing, our community greets visitors from nearly every state in the union, and those travelers have a nation-wide economic impact on every community they travel to, and through. During COVID, we have gained a better sense of the impact of this network and we appreciate seeing federal monies going towards understanding the role of tourism in our nation’s economy."

As a members of the Senate Commerce Committee and co-chairs of the Senate Travel and Tourism Caucus, Klobuchar and Blunt have long championed efforts to support tourism in the U.S. as a way to drive economic growth.

In July, Klobuchar and Blunt, along with Senators Catherine Cortez Masto (D-NV) and Kevin Cramer (R-ND), introduced bipartisan legislation to provide economic support for organizations involved in promoting and hosting tourism, travel, or other special events. The Sustaining Tourism Enterprises During the COVID–19 Pandemic (STEP) Act would modify existing Economic Development Administration (EDA) grant programs to provide direct support to the hard-hit tourism and travel industry to promote economic recovery and help increase public confidence as these industries look to reopen safely in the future.

"While no one can replace lost income, we appreciate the efforts of made through this legislation to help relieve the operational costs burdened onto these businesses through the pandemic," Heibel said. "Overall, I would say that our local tourism community faired better through the pandemic than we had initially predicted. Although not under the most ideal circumstances, we were able to engage with many of the travelers who typically passed through us on their way to Canada. Our water-fronted businesses, fishing guides, houseboat operators and the Park did exceptionally well in capitalizing on these displaced Canadian-bound traveler. We had what I would guess to be close to a a record summer for first-time visitors that enjoyed discovering the beauty of Rainy Lake. We were also revealed to be an exceptional social-distanced travel destination through our offering of island camping, houseboating, cabins and short-term vacation rentals, which all allow travelers to quasi-quarantine while on vacation. We are proud of all of our lodging operators, restaurants, and retailers whom we believe performed exceptionally well through incredible restrictions on their business by enhancing their cleaning procedures and enacting site modifications to ensure safety for both visitors and locals alike."

Earlier this year, Klobuchar and Cortez Masto led 14 of their Senate colleagues in a letter to Congressional leaders calling for additional funding for the EDA’s programs in future coronavirus economic recovery legislation. These programs help drive local economic development projects, develop new industries, build vital infrastructure, and enhance tourism and travel.

Last year, Klobuchar and Blunt helped secure the reauthorization of Brand USA through 2027. Brand USA is a public-private partnership that enhances tourism and job creation across the country. The program, which was established under the bipartisan Travel Promotion Act of 2009, brings in millions of additional international visitors to the U.S. each year at zero cost to taxpayers.

"That effort has importance because studies show national parks are the favored destinations of foreign travelers and we have one of those," Schultz said of the Brand USA effort. 

Looking forward

When thinking about 2021, Schultz and Heibel said while they can't predict how the pandemic will shape next summer, they are thinking ahead. 

"The Convention and Visitors Bureau is planning to promote our destination to markets in the metro area and our neighboring states," Schultz said. "The CVB will launch new promotion for winter and spring tourism. That will start in November with banner ads, emails and social posts directed at the Metro area and central/southern Minnesota."

Heibel said what was learned this year will help next summer.

"We believe we are aimed for a stronger tourism season in 2021 and appreciate the creativity, adaptability, and commitment of our tourism-related businesses to continue to provide exceptional service and lasting memories to our guests," she said.