Alarmed by a 17 percent de-cline in overseas visitors to the United States since Sept. 11, 2001, and the effect this downturn has on the nation’s economy, global image and security, U.S. business leaders have formed a partnership to fix what it calls a “travel crisis.”
The Discover America Partnership, formed in 2006, is working to strengthen the nation through the “power of travel” with policies that balance the need to boost overseas travel to the United States with the country’s security interests. This new coalition aims to promote three national goals: create a 21st-century visa system, modernize and secure U.S. ports of entry, and establish a national public-private marketing organization to better explain U.S. entry requirements and vigorously promote the country to world travelers.
The coalition is led by Steve Porter, president of the Americas division for the InterContinental Hotels Group; Roger Dow, president and chief executive officer of the Travel Industry Association; Jay Rasulo, chairman of Walt Disney Parks and Resorts; and Jonathan Tisch, chairman and chief executive officer of Loews Hotels and the Travel Business Roundtable. Tom Ridge, former secretary of Homeland Security, is one of the group’s chief public advocates.
U.S. Department of Commerce figures show that America’s travel economy continues to lose millions of overseas visitors, costing the country billions in revenue and preventing the United States from using its greatest public diplomacy tool, according to the Discover America Partnership.
“We have lost nearly 60 million overseas travelers since 9/11 and the problem is only getting worse,” said Geoff Freeman, Discover America’s executive director. “As travel around the world skyrockets, the U.S. is mired in a slump. It’s time for Congress to address this growing problem in a way that both strengthens our security and improves the efficiency of the travel process.”
Government figures show that overseas travel to the United States remains below pre-9/11 levels in six of the top eight overseas markets, and a 2006 Discover America survey of overseas travelers found negative perceptions of the U.S. entry process to be the greatest deterrent to visiting the country.
According to the group, massive lines at U.S. entry ports, excessive visa processing time for visitors from non-visa waiver program-participating countries (see related sidebar), and “horror stories” of travelers being detained for hours, and sometimes days, on suspicion of being security risks have contributed to the widespread perception that foreign visitors are unwelcome in the United States.
“The entry sequence contributes to a climate of fear and frustration,” Freeman said. “Welcoming visitors into this country is Public Diplomacy 101. Those who have visited the U.S. have more positive attitudes than those who have not.”
The Pew Global Attitudes Project has found that favorable opinions about the United States are declining in Europe and Asia and among Muslim countries, and continue to trail those of many other nations. For example, favorable opinions of the United States have fallen 27 percent in the last six years in Great Britain, America’s closest ally. In Spain, only 23 percent have a favorable view of the United States. In France, that figure is 39 percent, and in Germany it’s 37 percent.
Although inefficiencies in the U.S. entry program certainly aren’t entirely to blame for negative world opinion about the United States, the Discover America Partnership argues that solving this “travel crisis” will greatly help to reverse the country’s poor image overseas.
The group’s recommendations to Congress include expanding the visa waiver program to more countries, particularly to the newer members of the European Union, which is home to some of America’s closest allies in the war on terrorism. It also recommends devoting more money and staff to consulates where high demand for visas has created a bureaucratic bottleneck. And in countries and regions where visa applicants live long distances from a U.S. consulate, the partnership recommends the use of third parties to conduct remote interviews using video-conferencing technology.
In addition, the partnership proposes implementing a registered travel program by which frequent travelers to the United States can enter and exit the country quickly and securely using easy-to-track bio-sensory data such as fingerprints and iris scans. Discover America contends that more efficient processing of visitors greatly enhances national security because better technology-aided monitoring produces more reliable data on who enters the country, and it allows customs officials to focus their attention on those who truly may be a security risk.
In its third major policy proposal, the group advocates creating a public-private corporation dedicated to disseminating up-to-date travel document and processing information around the world and conducting a vigorous marketing campaign to persuade people to visit the country.
“America is the only industrialized nation with no coordinated travel promotion effort,” the group points out. “The United States does not compete for international visitors in any meaningful way, at a time when other major countries are investing millions of dollars to attract global travelers.”
And by not making travel a national priority, Discover America says the country risks falling further behind the rest of the world in attracting visitors, and the impact on the nation’s economy will be even more severe than it is now. In fact, the group reports that in the last 13 years, U.S. share of international travel has dropped by 35 percent—costing the economy an estimated 6 billion in lost revenue. Furthermore, in the last five years alone, the United States lost 18 percent of its share of international travel while the world market for tourism grew 61 percent.
Discover America notes that although the overall number of visitors has returned to pre-9/11 levels, this recovery is due to a proportionately greater number of visitors from Mexico and Canada, who tend to stay for shorter periods of time and spend less than visitors from overseas. The number of overseas visitors, however, continues to plummet.
Although this decline has sent ripples throughout the entire economy, hardest hit has been the travel and tourism industry, which represents some 17 million domestic jobs and almost 5 billion in tax revenues. But Discover America stresses that the partnership “is much broader than the interests of the travel and tourism industry, or for that matter, any one industry segment in the U.S. economy. The consequences of failing to address this decline in world opinion affect every aspect of American society, from our national security to our ability to conduct successful foreign policy.”
This assessment comes as Congress deliberates on legislation to implement recommendations by the so-called 9-11 Commission. The Senate is currently working on a bill that would incorporate travel reforms, including expanding the visa waiver program to all 27 EU countries. The House version omits these travel reforms, but it is hoped that the conference bill (which as of this writing, is expected to be within a few weeks) will include such measures.
Moreover, several recent amendments to the Senate immigration reform legislation would work to improve the efficiency and security of U.S. visa and entry policies—including video-conferencing for visa interviews, an international registered traveler program and assessments of consular posts around the world—although the immigration bill’s passage remains mired in controversy.
“This is not just about tourism, it’s about travel” said Freeman. “There is no lack of understanding of the problem. There is a lack of will to get the job done.”
Freeman added that it’s imperative for the federal government to bring a more business-like approach to administering the country’s entry and exit programs. This means making decisions based on the smart allocation of finite resources and sound customer service principles.
The travel and tourism leaders behind Discover America say that by taking bold new steps to increase visitors to the United States—the group challenges the U.S. government to welcome 10 million more visitors a year—the nation can take advantage of its greatest diplomatic asset: “People-to-people communication builds understanding in a way that no other form of communication can match. Without doubt, Americans are our country’s most powerful diplomats. As a result, we believe that finding ways to attract more international visitors to America must be a critical element of the nation’s public diplomacy process. [Our] mission is to strengthen America’s image by unlocking the power of travel.”
For more information, click on “A Blueprint to Discover America” at www.poweroftravel.org.
About the Author
Alan B. Nichols is a contributing writer for The Washington Diplomat.