There is no doubt that recent headlines about the spiraling economy’s impact on the gaming industry have been sobering. Save for areas where industry expansion has occurred, our numbers are down, and our companies are absorbing the blow on the casino floor and on the stock market.
In fact, the entire U.S. travel industry is hurting, compounding an already trying situation. Domestic and international air travel are down and – stating the obvious – that is bad for businesses like ours that rely on the leisure traveler. According to research, 41 million trips were avoided during the past 12 months, costing the economy $26.5 billion, including almost $6 billion to hotels and more than $3 billion to restaurants. When you throw in the costs of air travel delays, the cumulative cost to the economy of air travel woes exceeds $67 billion annually.
Looking at overseas travel to the U.S., we lost two million prospective U.S. visitors between 2000 and 2007 in the midst of a global travel market that grew 30 percent, amounting to 35 million new travelers. Had the U.S. market attracted its share of this increase in global overseas travel, our country would have earned an additional $137 billion in visitor spending and expanded our job market by 229,000 jobs.
In keeping with our mission to address matters affecting the commercial casino industry and protect its interests on Capitol Hill, the American Gaming Association (AGA) has joined with a number of strategic partners to form a Policy Council that is focusing on the most significant public policy issues affecting our nation’s travel industry.
Organized by the Travel Industry Association and the Travel Business Roundtable, the Policy Council is developing plans to accomplish three goals:
- Grow the pie, by studying ways to increase the number of travelers to and within the U.S.;
- Solve problems, by proposing solutions to travel challenges; and
- Champion the traveler, by serving as a national advocate for the interests of travelers.
In order to meet these goals, the Council has set specific public policy priorities, including facilitating domestic and international travel, increasing recognition of the benefits of travel as an engine for economic growth; and positioning the travel industry as a leader in environmental protection and sustainability. All of these areas could have significant positive impacts for casinos across the country.
As to the prospect of facilitating international travel, the AGA has been an active supporter of the Travel Promotion Act (TPA), a bill that would establish a nationally coordinated campaign to promote travel to the U.S. and address the frustrations of travel to our country. Every other developed nation in the world has such programs and allots significant funding to support them. Greece spends more than $151 million annually; Mexico budgets almost $150 million; and Australia sets aside more than $113 million for travel promotion. We don’t do this, but passage of the TPA will change that situation. It is projected that a $100 million travel promotion program will yield millions of new visitors annually bringing $8 billion in new visitor spending.
The Act would promote domestic and international travel to and throughout the United States, which undoubtedly would equate to increased business for casinos across the country. As of this writing, the TPA has garnered 46 Senate co-sponsors and 229 House co-sponsors. This represents strong backing, and although the national elections and other legislative priorities likely will take precedence this Congressional session, we expect consideration of the TPA when the new Congress convenes in 2009.
On the domestic travel front, the Policy Council is considering solutions to the challenges deterring air travelers, including suggesting solutions to reforming the air traffic control system and improving the Transportation Security Administration screening process. Members will also look to build alliances with many in the travel community to increase prospects for air travel reforms.
The AGA is also very active in efforts by the Policy Council to increase the appreciation of policymakers and media for the benefits of travel as an engine for economic growth. After all, this is an industry that generates more than 7.5 million jobs and is responsible for a $177 billion payroll. The economics of travel have a significant impact on how Americans live, and that is the message we are carrying to the nation’s leaders.
The AGA also anticipates a significant role in programs on the Policy Council docket that demonstrate the leadership of the travel industry in the fields of environmental protection and sustainability. The commercial casino industry already is a leader in this field, and we look forward to lending our expertise.
We can point to Las Vegas as the soon-to-be home to the world’s largest concentration of environmentally friendly hotel rooms. A total of 15 major new building projects there are currently seeking the U.S. Green Building Council’s Leadership in Environment and Energy Design (LEED) Certification.
Furthermore, some of Las Vegas’ most anticipated new projects are among those seeking LEED certification. MGM’s Project CityCenter, Echelon Palace and the Palazzo are all building projects that either are seeking or hold LEED certification. The Palazzo is currently the largest LEED-certified structure in the world. Each property features environmentally responsible construction and design, including low-water pressure showerheads, fluorescent light bulbs, super-insulating windows and walls, and the use of recycled building materials. Other properties are partnering with local organizations to better support green initiatives, such as the Horseshoe Casino in Hammond, Ind., which has partnered with local waste management officials to promote sustainable practices.
Indeed, we can share with our partners on the Policy Council the program successes and learning curves experienced by many of the AGA’s member companies as we develop environmentally-friendly programs for the travel industry.
The issues championed the Policy Council are essential as our industry and others relying on tourism weather the current economic storm, but they will continue to be central to the continued success of our business long after the ship has righted it’s course. A healthy tourism economy signals a healthy gaming business, and we will work hard to ensure that both are a reality.