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White House says it encourages business travel


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POSTED: Friday, March 13, 2009

LAS VEGAS » Tourism boosters welcomed comments from the White House yesterday after weeks of complaining that a remark from the president had a chilling effect on business travel.

White House press secretary Robert Gibbs said President Barack Obama was not discouraging travel when he said last month that businesses receiving federal bailout money should not be taking junkets.

“;The president believes it's important to have a strong tourism industry and that it's important that, as the president said earlier ... that we shouldn't retrench,”; Gibbs said. “;He would encourage people to travel.”;

Obama made the comment while promoting his stimulus bill at Indiana town hall meeting. Asked about corporate largesse and the federal bailout, the president said: “;you can't get corporate jets, you can't go take a trip to Las Vegas or go down to the Super Bowl on the taxpayer's dime.”;

Nevada officials have said the remark has discouraged travel among all companies skittish about being perceived as wasteful. At least three large banks recently have canceled meetings in Las Vegas. The impact was felt in a city already badly bruised by the recession. Tourism officials estimate cancellations have cost the region's tourism-related businesses about $132 million since October.

Hawaii has been hit hard as well. Wells Fargo & Co., which had received $25 billion in emergency taxpayer money, earlier canceled a corporate event that would have generated 11,000 room nights in May at Hilton Hawaiian Village.

Gibbs said yesterday that the president was referring specifically to companies “;that are getting large amounts of public funding.”;

“;The president does have great concern with public money being used for that,”; he said. Gibbs added that the president's comment was “;very clear,”; and passed on a chance to express regret.

Tourism advocates, who met with Obama Wednesday, praised the White House statement.

Also yesterday, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid asked Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner to create guidelines on luxury spending for companies receiving bailout money through the Troubled Assets Relief Program.

Reid said the guidelines would provide clarity for those business accepting the money and those who don't.

“;It could also assure the broader business community that conventions and meetings are a routine and accepted part of running a successful enterprise in the country,”; Reid wrote.