Hassles Deter Foreigners From Visiting United States

In some ways, vacationing in the United States — especially for those from many Western European countries — seems like a bargain. The tanking economy here means good deals for many foreigners, and gas prices in the United States, though high for U.S. consumers, are still relatively low compared to many other countries.

Statistics do show that the weak dollar and other travel bargains have indeed drawn more people to our shores. In 2007, the number of foreign visitors coming to the United States totaled more than 56.7 million people, according to the U.S. Department of Commerce. That represents an 11 percent increase over the previous year and a rise of more than 50 percent from a low set in 2003 following the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

But the numbers still haven’t rebounded to pre-9/11 levels. Moreover, the weak dollar hasn’t brought in the foreign tourism boom that it should, according to the Travel Industry Association (TIA), a nonprofit trade organization that represents the interests of the 0 billion U.S. travel industry. The group estimates that there were 2 million fewer foreigners visiting the United States in 2007 than in 2000, a decline they say has cost the country some 0 billion in lost visitor spending and billion in taxes.

So why are foreigners forgoing this international travel bargain? Put simply, the TIA says, it’s too much of a hassle.

In fact, both domestic and international travelers became so frustrated by delays, cancellations and inefficient security screenings at airports that they avoided an estimated 41 million plane trips from May 2007 to May 2008, according to a recent TIA poll conducted by Peter D. Hart Research Associates and the Winston Group. That loss of air travel cost some billion in airline revenue, as well as nearly billion in hotel spending, billion for restaurants, and billion in tax revenues.

“The air travel crisis has hit a tipping point — more than 100,000 travelers each day are voting with their wallets by choosing to avoid trips,” said TIA President and Chief Executive Officer Roger Dow.

“Many travelers believe their time is not respected and it is leading them to avoid a significant number of trips,” added Allan Rivlin, a partner with Hart Research. “Inefficient security screening and flight cancellations and delays are air travelers’ top frustrations.”

At the TIA’s “International Pow Wow” in Las Vegas this spring, members linked a lot of the travel headaches to a security process that’s been criticized as inefficient, understaffed and overbearing.

In April, the federal government introduced a new security measure that will require commercial airlines to collect digital fingerprints of all foreigners as they depart the United States. The new measure is part of the Department of Homeland Security’s US-VISIT program that was launched after Sept. 11, 2001.

Another pilot program to begin later this year will test a system at several U.S. airports that scans all 10 fingers of a foreign visitor, rather than the current two, as a way to increase matching accuracy and cut down on the number of “false positives” that force travelers to be pulled aside for questioning.

Government officials say such efforts are needed to help automate the processing of international visitors, but the airline industry fears the time and costs associated with the collection of fingerprints could lead to even more delays and frustrations. Industry lobbyists also say the undertaking — which comes at a time when high fuel costs are already compounding air travel woes — could cost airlines and passengers billions of dollars over the next decade.

At the same time, TIA and other industries have praised the federal government for other recent initiatives, such as funding 734 new Customs and Border Protection officers to improve passenger processing.

They also commended the government’s Electronic System for Travel Authorization (ESTA), a new program that applies to the 27 friendly nations who can already visit the United States without a visa through the U.S. Visa Waiver Program. The ESTA requires these visitors to register electronically with federal authorities at least three days before traveling to speed up the entry process. Before, travelers from those nations — Japan, Australia, New Zealand, Singapore, Brunei and 22 European nations — filled out paperwork en route to the country. Department of Homeland Security officials say such measures are needed to find potential terrorists, criminals and illegal immigrants, and are intended to help streamline the security process for all travelers.

These measures have been lauded by the TIA’s Discover America Partnership initiative, a coalition of business leaders that wants to improve the country’s image globally by creating what it calls a “world-class entry system.” The group is currently lobbying Congress to boost spending for travel promotion, hire more customs agents, and extend the Visa Waiver Program to more countries — changes, they say, will help make travel to the United States easier for foreigners without compromising security.

There are some bright spots amid dour travel industry reports. A healthy number of foreign tourists are still opting to take their chances, attracted by a weak dollar and gas prices that — despite record highs domestically — are a bargain compared to European countries like Germany, where a gallon of gas costs .

For instance, New York City saw 9.5 million visitors in the first three months of 2008 — 1 million more than came at the same time last year. One fifth of those visitors were foreigners, many of them drawn by a weak dollar that makes extravagances like fine wines and expensive theater tickets an affordable vacation splurge. As such, tourism spending in New York City climbed to .3 billion in the first quarter of this year compared to .6 billion during the same period in 2007, according to NYC & Company, the official marketing and tourism arm of the city.

“The weak dollar also continues to attract international visitors from around the globe — a segment that accounts for more than 50 percent of total visitor spending,” NYC & Company CEO George Fertitta said in a statement.

Other areas are hoping to capitalize on this trend. The Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority, for instance, has outlined an million marketing plan to attract 15 percent more foreign tourists by 2011. Increases have also been noted in places such as Grand Canyon National Park, where officials have informally estimated that as many as 40 percent of visitors come from other countries.

Still, it’s been an uphill battle for most U.S. destinations. Although New York attracted more visitors in 2006 than it did in 2000, it was the only one of the country’s 10 most popular cities that managed to do so, according to the Commerce Department.

Surveys show that many more foreigners are foregoing their purchasing power brought on by the weak dollar and instead taking their money to countries like China and Australia.

TIA says the overall growth rate of international travel to the United States since 2000 has been less than 1 percent. That rate lags well behind Iceland, where inbound international travel grew 8.7 percent over the same period. China saw similar growth at 8.3 percent.

Trying to reverse this trend, the U.S. government signed an agreement with China late last year that allows Chinese leisure travelers to visit the United States as part of tour groups — a move applauded by the travel industry.

But more work needs to be done. “Public dissatisfaction with America’s air travel system is growing,” Jonathan M. Tisch, head of Loews Hotels and a TIA member, said at a roundtable discussion in May. “In addition, overseas visitors, who are frustrated with cumbersome visa and entry procedures, are choosing to go elsewhere…. Travel is critically important to the American economy and must be a top priority.”

About the Author

Heather Mueller is a contributing writer for The Washington Diplomat.