Monday, June 25, 2007

Whither the Tourists & Their Lovely Money?

"Tourists aren't flocking to the US" the Los Angeles Times reports in June 22's Business section. Between 2000 and 2005, we learn, international visitors to the US dropped by 17%, and in big cities, by 20%. The rest of the world is enjoying a rise in tourism. Mayors are worried. CVBs (Convention & Visitors Bureaus) are frantic.

Several possible factors are listed for the drop in tourism: Our declining image abroad comes first, then . . . (drumroll) . . . "the difficulty and time it takes to get a visa and the perception that US ports of entry are unfriendly, understaffed, and overzealous about security." Gee, D'YA THINK????

The article acknowleged that 3/4 of the mayors polled agreed that treatment of tourists at U.S. ports of entry reinforce the negative impression.

Clearly worried, the government today announced that European tourists will soon be asked to submit to a 10-digit finger scan when they enter the U.S. Aren't the Europeans our friends?

Travel industry leaders point out that waiting time for a visa appointment in some countries takes 120 days. A State Dept. spokesman disputes this.

I was at the Travel Industry Association PowWow in Anaheim two months ago, and talked to a journalist from Hungary who said most of his colleagues will not bother to try to visit. His colleagues, mind you, who would benefit from the trip and probably get their employers to pay for it. But they don't want to come.

The Hungarian journalist described a demeaning and ridiculous scenario that involved opening up bank records, property records, family history, and many other forms of data to the U.S. authorities. Remember, to him, the U.S. is a foreign country. Would you let a foreign government dig around in your personal and financial records? Friends had to be interviewed, months passed, and in the end, he got his visa--with the understanding that upon landing on U.S. soil, customs officials could decide they didn't like his face or accent, and refuse him entry. If that happened, he would just have to get on a plane and return home immediately.

Most people just don't want to deal with that when planning a trip for business or pleasure.

The Los Angeles Times covered that angle back on April 25, too, interviewing foreign journalists at the TIA PowWow. "Reporters told horror stories about protracted visa application processes and lengthy airport security lines." Would you want to visit a country that, after a day-long airplane ride, kept you in a security line for over 90 minutes? So that you missed your connecting flight?

Two thousand international travelers rated the US airport arrival process as the "World's Worst", two to one over the runner-up: the Middle East. That's just embarrassing.

In April the guestimate of lost tourism revenue stood at $94 billion, according to the travel industry. I'm looking at the article, trying to find a decimal in there--nope, it's $94 billion. And today's story ups the figure to $100 billion.

How many people would that employ? In the U.S.? We're really shooting ourselves in the foot here.

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