Tuesday AM July 17th, 2007

Travel expert praises Houston policies that smooth entry procedures for international travelers...Cyberonics generators approved by FDA for commercial release...Government takes fresh look at American workers and drug use...

The president and CEO of the Travel Industry Association discussed the effect of travel and tourism policies at a meeting of the Greater Houston Partnership. Roger Dow says Houston has emerged as a national leader in shaping policies that help cities take part in the $7 trillion worldwide tourism industry. Houston improved entry procedures for incoming international travelers at Bush Intercontinental Airport—sparking a national initiative to revise policies at all 20 of the nation's top international airports.

"These are things that have gotten tougher since September 11th, and there's no industry that cares more about security than the lodging and the travel industry. I mean, we came to our knees with September 11th within an hour. But you can have great security and have hospitality. There's three things that are a challenge: one, we need more people to issue the visas so you can get a visa in 30 days, not 100 days. We need to increase the number of visa-waiver countries--i.e. Korea--as long as they give us enough security information so that we can take off from having them get a visa. Third, we need more customs and border protection people. These people are understaffed at all of the 20 international airports. They're doing the best they can, but it's just like the Christmas rush you have at stores—there's just not enough of them. And lastly, we've got to promote America. We spend almost nothing promoting America, and our competitors spend $50 to $150 million promoting their countries. So when you're your perception is it's tough to get here and you're not promoting what the reality is, you're losing at the end of the day. We've got to change that."

Dow says the United States is losing ground in attracting overseas visitors, while other countries have booming statistics.

"Although business is very good, we're losing a substantial amount of business coming into the U.S. from overseas markets. We're down substantially while the rest of the world is going up four and five percent a year, and it's got a real long-term problem that we've got to address. The key issues are several: one, it's very difficult to get a visa if you're from some of the Latin American countries, or China or India. You could wait up to 100 days to get a visa. From the non-visa countries, such as the European countries, Australia, Canada, there people are complaining about it's tough to get through customs and customs and border protection--some waits are two or three hours this summer--and people are just saying it's a hassle to go to the U.S., too much trouble, too much red tape, I'm going elsewhere."

Dow believes an open attitude to international travel is important to the Houston region and the nation. He says Houston works because city government, federal and local agencies and the private sector are working in concert to create opportunities and overcome obstacles to attract more travelers.

It has been a busy summer travel season for the major airlines--with some carriers posting record occupancy loads on their planes. Air carriers begin reporting second-quarter results this week--and airline profits for the April-June period are expected to be higher than a year ago. But the outlook isn't all clear skies. Analysts have lowered their earnings forecasts--in some cases by double-digit percentages. That's out of concern over everything from high fuel costs to summer storms. The up-and-down view from Wall Street is another indication that the industry still faces uncertainty as it emerges from several years of staggering losses. United Airlines filled 89 percent of its seats--its highest mark ever for June. Houston-based Continental Airlines reported a record occupancy of almost 88 percent, and Fort Worth-based American hit just topped 87 percent. But at American and United, planes were fuller because there were fewer of them flying. American--which is the nation's largest airline--carried 3.5 percent fewer passengers in June after cutting capacity by 5.4 percent. And even Dallas-based Southwest, which built its business around lower fares, has raised prices several times this year.


Houston-based medical device firm Cyberonics says it's Demipulse and Demipulse Duo generators have been approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration for commercial release. The products are for vagus nerve stimulation in the treatment of epilepsy and depression. The products are in European release and will be in limited commercial release in the United States later this year.


The state of Texas collected $1.63 billion in sales tax revenue in June—up 9.3 percent compared to the same month a year ago. State Comptroller Susan Combs says Houston is receiving $36.3 million as part of the July disbursement—up from $34.85 million a year ago. That's a 4.1 percent increase.


The government's taking a fresh look at American workers and drug use. According to the findings: one in 12 full-time workers acknowledges having used illegal drugs in the past month. The highest rates were among restaurant workers, at 17.4 percent, and construction workers, at 15.1 percent. About four percent of teachers and social service workers reported using illegal drugs in the past month, which was among the lowest rates. For most, the drug of choice was marijuana. Federal officials say the newest survey is a snapshot, not designed to show whether illicit drug usage by workers is a growing problem or a lessening one. Testing programs for drug use are fairly prevalent, with almost half of the full-time workers telling the government that their employers have them.


Though the U.S. is still the world's leading oil consumer, its might in the global petroleum business is dwindling. Developing countries are locking up a bigger share of the world's oil and gas resources to profit from high prices and to fuel industrial growth. Some experts view the shift as an emerging threat to the U.S. economy, while others see benefits for consumers, saying an expanding list of suppliers diminishes the impact of any single disruption. Still others see the shift simply as a reflection of globalization. New research by investment bank Goldman Sachs suggests four countries in particular--Brazil, Russia, India and China--are grabbing the most market share from American companies. The countries' share of the industry's market value has grown from virtually nothing 15 years ago to more than one third today, while American companies' stake has dwindled from more than half to less than a third. Most analysts agree that the biggest factor is the growth of state-controlled national oil companies.


The New York-based salad chain Tossed is opening the first of 14 Houston outlets, on Briar Forest in West Houston. A second outlet is planned for the fall. Customers can choose chef-designed salads or build their own, with some 20 dressings and 70 salad ingredients. Sandwiches, crepes, coups, smoothies and desserts are also on the menu.


The retro Swivel Caf? and Lounge has opened in midtown on Milam, between the Roof and Bond nightspots. Swivel offers free Wi-Fi, a smoke-free environment and a snack menu in a futuristic-inspired d?cor.


State auditors say nearly half the computers reviewed at the Connecticut Department of Environmental Protection over a two-year period were used to visit unauthorized Web sites. From 2004 to 2005, state employees routinely looked at the Internet sites of newspapers, mail-order merchants, automobile manufacturers and dozens more sites the state considers off-limits. For instance, one employee visited several Web sites for brides from the former Soviet Union. Womenrussia.com was visited more than 2,000 times and Ukraineloves.com more than 750 times. New filtering equipment has been installed since the audit was made, but employees have been reminded that all state computers are for official use only.


Be on the lookout for more of those famous pink vehicles driven by top consultants for the Mary Kay company. The beauty products company--for the first time--is offering its standout people a choice of all six models of Cadillacs, including the XLR Roadster and the Escalade. Tens of thousands of Mary Kay consultants are expected in Dallas this week for their annual seminars. GM spokesman Rob Minton says the only way to get one of those signature pink caddy's--is to be the recipient of a top award from Mary Kay. Minton says you can't even ask dealers to paint a Cadillac pink. They won't do it. The Escalades are made at the GM plant in Arlington.

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