Las Vegas and Florida tourism leaders push for help from feds for sputtering travel industry

Cinderella Castle, the icon of Magic Kingdom, is a tourist mecca and part of the Walt Disney World resort in central Florida. Credit: Wikipedia.

WASHINGTON—Witnesses on a Senate panel Tuesday stressed the need for a continued vaccine rollout effort by the federal government as a vital part of helping the tourism economy recover from the pandemic.

“We need to get to the point where socially distancing is no longer necessary,” Steve Hill, the CEO and president of the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority, told the Senate Subcommittee on Tourism, Trade and Export Promotion. “Like many destinations, Las Vegas doesn’t work well without a crowd.”

About 22% of the U.S. population —- 75.3 million people— is fully vaccinated, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Dr. Anthony Fauci, a top adviser to the Biden administration and director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, has said 75 to 80 percent of the population needs to be vaccinated to achieve herd immunity, and that point likely won’t be reached until children are vaccinated.

Former governor and current Republican U.S. Sen. Rick Scott of Florida. Official Senate portrait; U.S. Senate website.

The new travel panel, which is part of the Senate Commerce Committee, is headed up by two senators with strong tourism interests in their states—Democrat Jacky Rosen of Nevada, the chair, and Rick Scott of Florida, the top Republican.

Rosen said that Nevada’s unemployment rate skyrocketed to 30% as the nation endured lockdowns and shutdowns amid the pandemic and travel restrictions.

On top of that, hospitality work also is known for its low wages, leading to union organizing in places like Las Vegas and Atlantic City.

In Las Vegas alone, about a quarter of people are employed in hospitality and leisure. Before the coronavirus pandemic, Las Vegas had the second largest tourism industry in the U.S. at more than $19 billion, just behind Orlando, Fla., at $26 billion.

Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto, another Nevada Democrat, briefly joined the panel and said that tourism is not only vital to her state, but also the country.

“Our tourism industry economy will need our full support as the nation recovers,” Cortez Masto said.

Scott agreed with her.  “We both come from tourism states and we know the importance of making sure that we have robust tourism,” he said, adding that it’s important to push for international tourism as well.

Royal Caribbean’s Grandeur of the Sea leaving The Port of Key West, Key West Florida. Credit: Steve Apps

Scott, along with Sen. Marco Rubio, (R-Fla.), also has introduced legislation to work around restrictions set in place by the CDC that restrict the cruise ship industry from operating. A suit was filed against the CDC by the cruise ship industry, which Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and Attorney General Ashley Moody, both Republicans, supported.

One of the Senate witnesses, Jorge Perez, regional portfolio president at MGM Resorts International, said that he doesn’t expect the tourism industry to fully recover from the pandemic until 2025. In the U.S., nearly 600,000 people have died from coronavirus and there are more than 31 million cases.

“We are hopeful the recovery will arrive much sooner,” Perez said. “There are key political initiatives that can help our industry achieve a speedy recovery.”

He added that one way for lawmakers to try and speed up that recovery is to pass bipartisan legislation sponsored by Cortez Masto and Sen. Kevin Cramer, (R-N.D.), known as the Hospitality and Commerce Job Recovery Act of 2021, S. 477. The bill would amend the IRS tax code to provide a refundable tax credit for travel expenditures.

Perez said that the measure would help stimulate the tourism economy.

Another witness, Tori Emerson Barnes, the executive vice president of public affairs and policy at the U.S. Travel Association, said another way lawmakers can help promote travel is to not push for proof of vaccinations in order to travel—so-called vaccine passports.

“We also don’t believe that there should be a vaccine requirement to travel, but we do think that it is an important layer and we are very much advocating that folks get vaccinated,” she said.

Carol Dover, CEO and president of the Florida Restaurant and Lodging Association, also testified.

While Scott and Rosen have tourism and the subcommittee in common, the Florida Republican is also playing a large political role in Nevada in advance of the midterm elections—and Cortez Masto’s reelection bid.

Scott, who chairs the National Republican Senatorial Committee, launched a TV ad in late March criticizing Cortez Masto’s support for H.R. 1, a more than 800-page bill that seeks to expand voting rights and curb dark money in elections. In 2019, Cortez Masto supported and co-sponsored an earlier version of the bill.

“It represents the largest power grab by Washington politicians in history and will do irreparable harm to our nation,” Scott said in a statement. “Senator Cortez Masto will have a lot of explaining to do over the next two years and a lot to answer for in 2022.”

Cortez Masto said in 2019 that “our democracy is being threatened by attempts to undermine the right of citizens to vote and the influence of dark money on our elections.”

The GOP committee is dedicated to electing Republicans to the Senate and building the party’s majority there. Republicans lost control of the Senate with the election of two Democratic senators in Georgia in January, and it’s now split 50-50, with tie votes broken by Vice President Kamala Harris.