WINONA — From our national parks to our seashores, Mississippi is a Southern gem. While gray, concrete buildings paint the backgrounds of many of our nation’s cities, our state’s untouched and pristine natural landscapes have made us one of the country’s top destinations.

In its recent report, the Mississippi Development Authority reported that a record number of tourists visited our state in 2018. Last year, 24 million tourists visited the Magnolia State, representing an increase of 800,000 visitors from the previous year. It’s the second-highest number of visitors on record — and the state forecasts an even larger increase in 2020.

The tourism industry is one of the main pillars of our economy. Last year, visitors spent more than $6 billion in Mississippi. An increase in tourism means more hotel rooms booked, more diners in restaurants, and more shoppers at local businesses. But the continued increase in our tourism industry could be threatened next year if Congress doesn’t reauthorize its partnership with Brand USA, a tourism marketing agency.

Mississippi has just as much to offer tourists as New York and California — at a better price — but international tourists planning trips to the U.S. often don’t know that. They will be missing out on an incredible experience, and we’ll be missing out on their business. It is difficult, however, for our smaller cities to break through the popularity of big cities such as Los Angeles and New York City or popular destinations such as Disney World that spend billions on marketing campaigns. Our local communities, on the other hand, don’t have large marketing budgets.

So, how can we create our own buzz and reach a wide number of tourists?

Congress had the answer in 2009. It passed a law that established a public-private partnership known as Brand USA to promote America internationally — at no cost to taxpayers. Brand USA collects a small fee from foreign travelers through the Visa Waiver Program that funds its operation. Its over 700 partners match that fee in return for Brand USA’s work to boost tourism. The payment mechanism of this private-public partnership incentivizes Brand USA to increase international tourism.

As part of the partnership with four local tourism organizations, Brand USA promotes Mississippi internationally. It creates and shares high-quality and well-produced videos that highlight our landmarks, restaurants and communities to the world. It also publicizes our state on a variety of social platforms, from YouTube to Twitter, in eight different languages, helping us reach a diverse audience of prospective tourists.

Since Congress established Brand USA, the organization has helped bring 148 million visitors to our state. And those tourists spent $4.8 billion at our stores, restaurants and hotels, supporting 87,000 jobs that depend on international tourism. The organization also generated over $395 million in tax revenue that goes to fund schools, pave roads, improve infrastructure and meet state obligations.

Nationally, Brand USA has inspired 6.6 million international tourists to visit the U.S. Those visitors spent $21.8 billion, helping support over 150,000 jobs. This partnership, however, is set to expire if Congress does not reauthorize it. Our state — and the country — will lose millions in tourism dollars if the deal is not extended. Fortunately, our state’s delegation, including Sen. Roger Wicker and Rep. Bennie Thompson, champions of our tourism industry.

But, in order to hit our goal of increasing tourism in 2020, Congress needs to reauthorize this public-private partnership soon. I am certain and trust the Mississippi congressional delegation will support reauthorization so we can hit our 2020 goals and grow our economy.

Lydia Chassaniol is a Republican state senator from Winona. She chairs the Senate Tourism Committee.

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