America's war on tourists

By Peter Huck

"Welcome to LA, where the world comes together," reads the greeting from Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa at Los Angeles International Airport.

But standing in one of the interminable queues that snake into the non-resident alien section of LAX recently, waiting to clear United States immigration and customs, it was clear that for many people their first hours on US soil were dominated by anxiety and frustration rather than anticipation of good times past the barrier.

Welcome to America, where officials who work for the Department of Homeland Security, which was set up after the 2001 terrorist attacks, have a major image problem.

In a recent poll of international travellers, commissioned by Discover America Partnership, a coalition of US tourist organisations, 70 per cent of respondents said they feared US officials more than terrorists or criminals. Another 66 per cent worried they would be detained for some minor blunder, such as wrongly filling out an official form or being mistaken for a terrorist, while 55 per cent say officials are "rude."

Such fears are fuelled by the horror stories. Earlier this year a friend of mine was detained for hours and strip-searched at LAX for a minor visa infraction. He was finally allowed to enter the US, on the condition he departed the next day. "I won't be coming back," he said.

In a January Listener article New Zealand journalist Marilyn Head described how she missed a flight after being treated like a criminal by US airport guards.

"I left the US vowing never to return," she wrote. "I'm not alone."

She's right. Head's experience echoes that of many disgruntled tourists who have bitter memories of treatment meted out by US immigration officials.

Before September 11, US airport staff often seemed to err on the laid-back rather than on the vigilant side. Now some overzealous officials appear to regard all tourists as potential terrorists. Entering America can feel like running the gauntlet.

"We are citizens of a country regarded as one of the closest allies the US has," frequent British visitor Ian Jeffrey told the Orlando Sentinel last November. "Yet on arrival we are treated like suspects in a criminal investigation and made to feel very unwelcome."

Such comments, and the poll results - which rate the US by a 2:1 margin as the world's "most unfriendly" destination for foreign travellers - are found in "A Blueprint to Discover America," unveiled in January by Discover America Partnership to halt a dramatic decline in foreign visitors.

According to the blueprint overseas travel to the US has slumped 17 per cent since 2001, even as world travel to other countries reaches historic growth levels. The decline has cost US$94 billion ($127 billion) in visitor spending, US$16 billion in tax receipts, and some 194,000 American jobs. Many poll respondents said that visiting the US had become a hassle and that they would take their holiday money elsewhere.

"We've had British tourists say they won't return to the US," Sean Tipton, a spokesman for the British Association of Travel Agents told Cox News Service last September.

"This is a politeness issue that has nothing to do with worries over terrorism."

This negative perception has helped fuel a 7.6 per cent drop in travel from Britain, a 23.3 per cent fall from Japan, 19.2 from France and 20.7 per cent from Germany - the top US tourist origin markets - between 2000 and 2005.

"Our process is neither friendly nor efficient, nor does it welcome foreign visitors," Jay Rasulo, chairman of Walt Disney Parks and Resorts, said this week.

His comments were echoed repeatedly by foreign journalists, in Los Angeles for the Travel Industry Association's International Pow Wow.

They told stories of endless lines at US airports and lengthy visa wait times.

Faced by a bleak decline in receipts, Rasulo's peers in the travel industry agree reform is crucial. "It's a problem," says Geoff Freeman, executive director of Discover America Partnership.

"The challenge is that post-September 11 travel was seen [by officials] as something that made us less secure."

The Discover America Partnership is working hard to turn this perception on its head. Travel, they insist, is not a risk but an enormous asset.

Since September 11 the US Government has tried to improve its tarnished international image, even hiring a Madison Ave advertising executive, with disappointing results. Travel industry executives argue that the best ambassadors the US can have are happy visitors: 74 per cent of those who make it through immigration, says the poll, leave with a good impression of America.

"The more hospitable and welcoming you are the more favourable people feel towards your country," says Roger Dow, president of the Travel Industry Association of America. Yet in contrast to almost every other nation keen to attract tourists, the US spends almost nothing on overseas promotion. The budget this year is a paltry US$3.9 million.

In comparison, notes the blueprint, New Zealand, while only 1/74th the size of the US, spends $43 million.

"We have not broken through yet," say Dow, who has lobbied Karen Hughes, America's "public diplomacy" tsar. "But this is the way we can change America's image. We must do it."

This would seem an obvious conclusion but it has to swim against the current of post-September 11 paranoia that exerts a vice-like grip on many officials, determined not to admit the next suicide bomber.

Dow believes malefactors can be stopped by US intelligence - plus programmes like US-Visit, which collects biometric data from visitors - but not by the often stressed officials on airport immigration desks.

Interestingly, the poll suggested US foreign policy was not "a significant factor" in global dissatisfaction with the US, but that US entry policies were. It is slowly dawning in Washington that, unless visitors are treated better upon arrival, the US will continue to lose hearts and minds.

There is evidence this view is gaining ground on Capitol Hill. "The best global ambassadors for the US are ordinary Americans," said Representative William Delahunt, who warned against a "Fortress America" mentality.

"Inefficiency and rudeness at our borders only undermine national security." Representative Sam Farr wants travel and security balanced as "critical components of a comprehensive public diplomacy policy."

Will the industry's blueprint reap dividends? "We're optimistic," says Freeman. "Change won't happen overnight. But we are closer than at any point since September 11 to reforming the travel system."

Congress is considering legislation to expand the visa waiver bill, process visas within 30 days (interview wait times can exceed 100 days in India and Brazil), share biometric data with more countries, promote the US as a destination overseas, and improve processing facilities at 20 major airports, in part by hiring 200 more immigration staff. But common courtesy wasn't mentioned.

Later this year US airport officials will begin scanning all 10 fingerprints (US-Visit currently scans eyes and index fingerprints), arguing that this will reduce "false positives," which have detained many travellers, and hasten the entry process. Critics regard this as another sign of how America has over-reacted to the perceived terrorist threat.

This week several senior Government officials, including the head of Customs and Border Protection, attended the LA Pow Wow, where they listened to airport horror stories. And while CBP spokeswoman Kelly Klundt argues that horror stories are atypical (One million visitors enter the US each day, mostly without incident), she acknowledges that some visitors feel they have been mistreated, have been wrongly identified as being on watch lists, or have missed flights because they were held up by officials.

"We are very aware of this. Otherwise we wouldn't be at the Pow Wow. We are part of the discussion. And we hear the concerns being voiced."

She encourages anyone with a complaint to tell supervisors at the airport, or to log on to the Traveller Redress Inquiry Programme, known as Trip, found on the Homeland Security website.

But while she agrees that the rudeness of officials should be addressed promptly, she says the CBP's primary mission is to keep terrorists out of America. "The law enforcement mission is critical. Security is critical. And there are ways that we can apply those practices and be more mindful of our role as ambassadors."

Given that America is fighting an endless war on terror, that may be the best compromise the travel industry and visitors to the US can hope for.

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