Disney helping US airports to turn on happy face for visitors

By Bernd Debusmann

WASHINGTON - Faced with a decline in the number of overseas visitors and unpopular entry requirements, the United States Government is turning to Walt Disney and other theme park operators to brighten the country's battered image.

With security much tightened since the attacks of September 11, 2001, the visa and entry processes are so unpopular that the country was ranked as the world's most unfriendly to visitors in a survey last month of travellers from 16 nations.

Last January, the Government promised to work with the private sector to create a more welcoming environment without compromising security.

But the "Rice-Chertoff Joint Vision" announced by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and then Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff has yet to become reality.

So far, applying for American visas still involves standing for hours in long lines at fortress-like embassies. Stern officials at American airports often inspire fear, according to the survey.

Enter the US travel industry, which has watched with concern the parallel trends of rising anti-American feeling around the world and declining visitor numbers.

Since September 11, 2001, industry leaders say, the Government has tended to see foreign visitors as potential threats, and the screening process reflects that view.

"We have missed an opportunity to make people feel welcome," said Jay Rasulo, chairman of Walt Disney Parks and Resorts. "The whole process must be friendlier and more efficient. We must invest in creating a first impression of hospitality and friendliness at our borders."

The Rice-Chertoff plan ranged from cutting waiting times for visas to a project to turn the international airports at Dulles, outside Washington, and Houston into models of friendliness and efficiency to be emulated by others.

Progress on the "model airports" plan has been slow.

Mid-level officials from the two departments and representatives of travel groups and three big theme park operators - Disney Parks and Resorts, Anheuser-Busch and Universal Studios - toured Dulles last month and found room for improvement.

One participant said the experts had taken note of the long, drab corridors, long lines of visitors and a lot of empty immigration agents' booths, which added to the wait time.

"First impressions are important," Rasulo said in an interview. "The first 100 steps in an airport are important. The entry sequence is what sets you in the mood to have a good time."

So far, the entry sequence contributes to "a climate of fear and frustration," according to Geoff Freeman, executive director of the Discover America Partnership, a group set up in September to push for a better system.

The partnership was behind the survey of foreign visitors and it also found that visitors fear American immigration officials more than they fear terrorism or crime.

The Department of Homeland Security has questioned the survey's methodology and stressed that their priority is to keep the country safe.

Travel industry leaders say that turning the United States back into a visitor-friendly country goes beyond matters of lost revenue and jobs.

More visitors would help to reduce anti-American sentiment, which a series of global opinion polls have shown to be running at unprecedented highs. "Welcoming visitors into this country is Public Diplomacy 101," said Freeman. "Foreigners who have visited the US have more positive attitudes than those who have not."

- REUTERS

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