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U.S. Security Scares Foreign Visitors Away

Reuters | March 12, 2007

GRAND CANYON, Arizona (Reuters) - Maryellen Fleming-Hoffman manages a gift store on the plunging rim of the Grand Canyon, where visitors come to marvel at one of the world's greatest attractions.

Business is good, local travel is buoyant, although one thing is different: foreign visitors to the canyon, like other U.S. tourist attractions, are no longer coming in the numbers they once did, she says.

``Overall, the number of foreign visitors are down and we'd like to see more of them,'' Fleming-Hoffman told Reuters in the Hopi House store, which sells a selection of American Indian jewelry and other handycrafts.

The store is among travel-related businesses across the United States feeling a decline in the number of overseas visitors, which have yet to recover to levels before the September 11 2001 attacks.

According to figures from the Travel Industry Association of America, the number of travelers to the United States -- not including Canadians and Mexicans -- has dropped by 17 percent since 2001.

Despite a record year for world tourism last year and a weak dollar against both the British pound and the euro, the number of visitors from Western Europe dipped by nearly three percent over the previous year.

The pinch has been felt by businesses from California to the sunshine state of Florida, which draws tourists with its theme parks and beaches.

According to industry lobbyists and analysts, the chief reason behind the decline is a convoluted visa process to enter the country and poor perceptions of treatment by pistol-toting and often stern-faced immigration officials on arrival.


In a survey conducted by the travel industry lobby group the Discover America Partnership late last year, the United States' scored more than twice as badly as the next region, the Middle East, in terms of travel friendliness.

Two-thirds of respondents worried they could be held back at airports because of a mistake in form filling or a misstatement to immigration officials. Half said officials were rude and that they feared them more than the threat of terrorism or crime.

For many foreign tourists and business travelers, the anxiety surrounding the entry process makes rival destinations in Europe, Asia and Africa more attractive to visit than the United States.

``There's other places you can go where you don't get treated badly at immigration and ports of entry,'' British visitor Mitchel Lenson told Reuters as he stood on a wind-swept promontory overlooking the Grand Canyon.

``The assumption (in the United States) is 'you must be a criminal, so we'll treat you that way,''' he added.

Travel industry sources say the frosty welcome is not just driving tourists away but also business travelers from overseas, foreign students and even foreigners seeking medical care in U.S. clinics and hospitals.

Geoff Freeman, the executive director of the Washington-based Discover America Partnership, says the decline is costing the increasingly service-led U.S. economy dearly.

``(It) harms our economic security,'' he told Reuters in a telephone interview. ``As the number of foreign visitors falls we lose billions of dollars in spending, billions in tax revenues and hundreds of thousands of jobs,'' he added.


Lawmakers on Capitol Hill are expected to present a bill this year drawing on the Discover America Partnership's ''Blueprint to Discover America'' report, which was crafted with input from Tom Ridge, the first U.S. homeland security chief.

Among proposals are contracting more staff at U.S. consulates overseas to bring down wait times for travel visas to 30 days -- from the current levels of up to three months in some countries -- and sending in trouble-shooting ``rapid response'' teams to tackle backlogs.

It also proposes extending the visa waiver rights currently held by 27 countries worldwide to other nations to allow more visitors to bypass the strained visa system.

Back in the United States, proposals include hiring 250 more Customs and Border Protection agents to work in busy airport arrival halls, and in consulting theme park operator Disney for tips on line management.

Tourist authorities say other countries use more state funds to lure foreign visitors, and they would also like to see higher government spending to woo foreign visitors back to the United States,

``The welcome from the U.S. government just hasn't been there,'' said Vanessa Welter, communications director for state tourism agency Visit Florida.

``We want to ensure our borders are safe but we also want ensure that people know we want them to come here ... with the exchange rate, we're on sale right now!''



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