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Column: International flights spur Florida growth

Beginning in December, four times weekly nonstop flights from Tampa International Airport to Panama will begin. In anticipation of the launch of our first direct link to Latin America, the airport this week will host Pedro Heilbron, CEO of Panama's Copa Airlines, and Ernesto Orillac, Panama's vice minister of tourism, for a series of meetings with state and local business and political leaders.

The arrival of Copa, the world's most successful airline, is expected to be an economic boon for Tampa Bay. That's why bringing Copa to the airport and ensuring the success of the flights is not just an airport initiative, but an effort shared by our local chambers of commerce, economic development and tourism agencies.

We at the airport are grateful that Visit St. Pete/Clearwater, Visit Tampa Bay, the Greater Tampa Chamber of Commerce, the St. Petersburg Chamber of Commerce, the Tampa Hillsborough Economic Development Corp. and Tampa Bay Partnership are committed to the growth and success of the airport.

But those efforts must not stop at the local level. Tampa International Airport, along with airport and tourism officials throughout the country, are looking to federal lawmakers to support legislation that would boost international tourism to the United States by making it easier for low-risk travelers to visit the country and continue the Brand USA program, which markets the United States globally as a premier travel destination.

As a state that considers tourism one of its top industries, Florida stands to benefit greatly from what's called the Jobs Originated Through Launching Travel (JOLT) Act, HR 1354. Provisions of the act include:

• Expansion of the Visa Waiver Program to ease inbound travel for visitors from countries such as Panama, Argentina and Brazil;

• Expansion of the popular Global Entry Program, which allows expedited entry into the country for preapproved international travelers;

• A pilot program to test secure videoconferencing to conduct visa interviews overseas, which would provide increased access to a U.S. visa for potential travelers;

• Reduced visa wait times.

Key provisions of this piece of legislation were included in the immigration reform bill passed by the U.S. Senate earlier this year. It is a stand-alone bill in the House of Representatives, with 68 sponsors from both sides of the aisle. So far, seven Florida representatives have signed on as co-sponsors, including Reps. Kathy Castor, Gus Bilirakis, Tom Rooney and Dennis Ross. I urge all Florida lawmakers, who represent a state that employs more than 1 million people in the tourism industry, to support this bill.

The economic impact of tourism in our state and country is immense.

Every additional 33 overseas visitors create one American job, according to the U.S. Travel Association. International travelers (not including those from Mexico and Canada) spend nearly $4,500 per visit, and in 2012, these visitors added nearly $130 billion to the U.S. economy and generated more than $19 billion in federal, state and local tax revenue.

Our research shows that one nonstop daily flight to a major European city would pump $154 million into the Tampa Bay region each year and create 1,200 jobs. Daily service to a Latin American city would have a $67 million economic impact and create 600 jobs. Making it easier to visit the state will make it easier to expand our international air service.

In the meantime, Tampa International Airport will ready itself for an influx of new visitors to the area as we begin to carry out the first phase of our 20-year master plan, which significantly expands the capacity of our airport. The initial project is a rental car center connected to the main terminal by an automated people mover that will allow for easy links to future regional transportation systems.

We are about to enter a new period of growth. Perhaps no one understood this more than the late Steve Burton, former chairman of the Hillsborough County Aviation Authority. Burton fiercely championed the addition of international flights, and his final acts as chairman before he passed away in April were devoted to shaping and approving the airport's Master Plan.

To quote Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn at our Copa announcement in July, it truly is Tampa's time. Now more than ever, we are poised for an economic boost directly tied to the growth of international air service. We need the support of our community and the backing of state leaders to ensure we are ready to welcome it.

Joe Lopano is the chief executive officer of Tampa International Airport.

Column: International flights spur Florida growth 09/06/13 [Last modified: Friday, September 6, 2013 3:01pm]

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