U.S. Rep. Peter Welch is championing legislation to boost international tourism in Vermont.

The Democratic congressman from Vermont is co-author of the Travel Promotion, Enhancement and Modernization Act of 2019, which would reauthorize Brand USA, a public-private partnership funded through contributions from businesses and a fee on international visitors.

Welch discussed the legislation Friday in Stowe with Vermont travel and tourism leaders.

“With a very small international visa fee and significant in-kind contributions from the tourism industry, we tell the story of what’s available, and not to advertise your business or your business, but to advertise what is available in this country and its various regions,” Welch said. “We have the mechanism to consolidate the resources and get the word out about Vermont.”

At the state level, Brand USA has paid for foreign journalists to come and write stories about the attractions that Vermont is known for, such as skiing, craft beer, maple syrup and fall foliage. The program is set to expire in 2020; however, because the program depends on contributions from the private sector — which he said needs to budget a year in advance — Welch hopes to reauthorize Brand USA in the next couple of months.

The bill — co-authored with Rep. Gus Bilirakis, R-Fla. — would reauthorize brand USA through 2027.

“In the past, Brand USA has enjoyed bipartisan support. We did it before, and we’re trying to do it again,” Welch said.

Legislative gridlock between the Republican-controlled Senate and Democratic-controlled House has complicated the reauthorization process.

“The House has passed a budget, but the Senate has not. But, toward the end of the session, we’re usually able to shoehorn in items that have broad bipartisan support,” he said.

As of this week, the bill has 80 co-sponsors, Welch said.

“Brand USA is one of our major tools that we use to access the international market,” said Heather Pelham, commissioner of the Vermont Department of Tourism and Marketing. “It’s able to create possibilities that we otherwise would not have available to us.”

“The tourism industry is the heartbeat of the Vermont brand,” said Amy Spear, vice president of tourism for the Vermont Chamber of Commerce. “The renewal of the Brand USA program will bolster our international tourism marketing efforts to ensure a thriving industry in an ever-increasing global market.”

“My colleagues and I might not agree on everything, but when you get down to the practical issues where you find practical ground — because this meeting could be happening anywhere — we can find common ground,” Welch said.

Welch said encouraging international travel is crucial right now, given the national discussion about immigration.

“We have this incredibly controversial issue of immigration and the rhetoric around that doesn’t create, in my world view, a very welcoming atmosphere. Brand USA right now, given those issues as a backdrop, is more important than ever,” Welch said.

Xusana Davis, director of racial equality for the state of Vermont, discussed the atmosphere facing people who come to Vermont.

“When we talk about putting effort and dollars into marketing Vermont as a state, it’s important that it’s not just about our industry and our tourism and our outdoor recreation, but that we put effort into branding within the state for the community that is already here,” Davis said.

“One of the things for people like me who come to Vermont is this tension between people who think of themselves as native Vermonters versus the rest of us.

“I’ve hit my 60 days here, so I’m calling myself a Vermonter, but there are people who would vehemently disagree with me, so despite our best efforts at marketing and branding, what are we doing so that, on the ground, people we are trying to attract feel like they belong here, whether it’s temporary or permanently?” Davis asked. “When I was looking for a place to live, there was one place I was able to eliminate right off the bat because the neighbor stood outside on his porch and stared me down beneath his huge Confederate flag.”

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