In Washington, D.C., two weeks ago, I heard a lot of talk about the probability that Congress will create a public-private organization spending $200 million dollars a year to promote incoming travel to the United States. According to various estimates, the United States has lost as much as 20 percent of the foreign tourists that were visiting our country each year prior to Sept. 11.
Is a lack of advertising the reason for a sharp decline in our incoming tourism? I rather doubt it. The entire world is aware of our nation’s attractions and of how cheap it is for them to enjoy a stay; the weak U.S. dollar has made us into a staggering bargain. The reason they are not coming here is not a lack of marketing, but because we have made visiting the U.S. a procedural nightmare.
To visit the U.S., most foreign citizens must apply for a visa, in person, at a U.S. consulate in their country, submit to an interview by a consular official and sometimes travel hundreds of miles to that consulate. Just to apply for such an interview often takes two months and the payment of $131 per visa, to be paid whether or not the visa is issued. If it is denied, you are out the $131.
In conducting the interview, some consular officials are more concerned with heading off illegal immigration than with thwarting terrorism. In Panama two months ago, I met an educated, English-speaking woman who has a fine job in a Latin American corporation. She has never been able to obtain a visa to visit her sister in California because she fits the profile —young and single —of a possible illegal immigrant.
Every month, one or another department in our government erects another barrier to incoming tourism, without consulting any other department having broader responsibilities. The recent increase in the visa fee to $131 was a typical misguided decision by someone in the State Department, who should have been reducing the fee rather than raising it. Not a single terrorist will be deterred by the extra $31 added to the former $100 fee.
This month, the Department of Homeland Security has confronted millions of Canadian motorists with the need to show a birth certificate in order to drive over the U.S./Canada border to go shopping. Not a single terrorist will be thwarted from entering by this need to obtain an easily forged document —but millions of Canadians will decide that they can put off that shopping trip.
Just as recently, the Department of Homeland Security has required that even those foreigners who need not obtain visas (because they are in a “visa waiver” country) must provide the Department, 72 hours in advance of arrival, with a proposed itinerary for that trip. What will be done with that itinerary has never been explained, nor has anyone suggested that we have the manpower to check on whether foreigners adhere to their itineraries. After the foreigner provides this wholly absurd piece of paper, they then must be fingerprinted —all 10 digits —upon clearing U.S. immigration at their arrival airport. Imagine how you would feel if you faced such indignities on a trip to London or Rome.
And I could go on and on. What’s needed is not additional marketing dollars, but a dynamic official in our government appointed to a prominent position and given the responsibility of representing our tourism interests with respect to the State Department and the Department of Homeland Security. We need someone constantly questioning whether these random acts of nuisance by State Department and Homeland Security bureaucrats are unnecessarily harming our economic interests while creating no tools at all for combating terrorism.
The recent decline in foreign tourists has cost our economy tens of billions of dollars, hundreds of thousands of jobs and untold revenue in taxes.
No one in our government is presently acting as a champion of tourism, posing hard questions to other departments of government and critically analyzing their barriers to incoming tourism. Instead, we are about to appropriate money to encourage foreigners to visit a country that is working hard to keep them out.