When readers of the Daily Telegraph newspaper were asked shortly after the September 11, 2001 attacks whether security fears had made them think twice about travelling to the United States, a resounding 89 percent proclaimed no. But in a recent survey, 90 percent said they would avoid flying to the US.
The main reason wasn't security fears, but belligerent US immigration officials, whom one Briton called ??sarcastic, suspicious, patronizing, and downright rude.'' International travel has jumped nearly 20 percent since 2000, but the trend has left the US in the dust.
The number of visitors to the US ? 50 million last year ? is just now regaining the levels achieved before 9/11, and the US share of the world travel market last year has slipped from nine percent in 2000 to six percent last year.
The image of US immigration officers is just part of the problems, tourism officials say. Many cite tough security measures ? due to tighten even more next year ? as the main culprit. Still others point to the US's image overseas, largely a result of its foreign policy.
Whatever the reasons, billions of dollars are at stake, and leaders of the US tourism business have launched a Discover America Partnership whose goal is to lure more foreigners to the United States by promoting the United States' image abroad.
??Research shows that the best asset the US has in its effort to strengthen its image around the world is the US people,'' said Geoff Freeman, executive director of the partnership, which kicked off last week in Washington.
Freeman cited studies showing that those who have travelled to the United States are 42 percent more likely to hold a favourable opinion of the US and Americans than those who haven't.
??If we are committed to strengthening our image, we must increase the number of opportunities for US natives to interact with citizens of other nations,'' he said. The partnership would like to persuade either the government or the US tourism industry ? or most likely a public-private partnership ? to spend tens of millions of dollars a year on an international marketing campaign.
Walt Disney Parks and Resorts Chairman Jay Rasulo, who's also chairman of the Travel Industry Association of America, pointed out that Australia spends US$100 million a year on efforts to promote itself overseas.
Sean Tipton, a spokesman for the Association of British Travel Agents, said the US is still the most popular destination for British travellers after Spain and France and that a record 4.2 million people from Britain visited the United States in 2004.
The main reason was...belligerent US immigration officials, whom one Briton called ??sarcastic, suspicious, patronizing, and downright rude.''
But he agreed that many people have been put off by rude immigration officials. ??We've had British tourists say they won't return to the US because of this,'' he said. ??This is a politeness issue and has nothing to do with worries over terrorism.''
Allyson Stewart-Allen, who runs International Marketing Partners, a cross-cultural consulting firm in London, said the US State Department knows it has a problem with the way it welcomes visitors to the country.
??Their biggest problem is not recognizing that all front-line staff at airports have the power to make or break the impression people get of the United States,'' she said. ??The challenge is getting immigration officers, floor cleaners, and Transport Safety Administration staff at all US airports to act as citizen diplomats, and that requires some training. "Even basic civilities like saying please and thank you would be a terrific start," she said. "Until this happens, unfortunately the appetite of vacationers and business people will continue to be dampened."
One Briton who responded to the Telegraph survey, Kevin Wright, said that he and his wife have always loved the United States and had every intention of visiting again this year. But they won't be doing so now. "It's not the fear of terrorism, but the continuing bad press about US immigration staff," he said. "Directly after the September 11 attacks, we were welcomed with decency and gratitude. Since then, the feeling that we were at best a nuisance, or at worst a threat, has increased." "The whole attitude makes you feel less than welcome and has made us decide to go elsewhere,'' he said.
The Discover America Partnership also plans to lobby Congress to streamline visa procedures and to improve the overall travel experience by making the entry process friendlier and even more efficient.
Commerce Secretary Carlos Gutierrez has agreed to represent the travel industry in discussions with other agencies such as the State Department.
Security precautions also put off some tourists. A survey in June by the Travel Industry Association, an advocacy group for the tourism business, found that 77 percent of travel agents worldwide thought the United States was tougher to visit than other countries. Freeman worries that the US's ??fortress appearance'' will become even stronger when new security restrictions take effect.
Next January 8, new regulations will require passports for all sea and air travel to and from Canada, Mexico, the Caribbean, and any other destination in the Western Hemisphere.
In January 2008, passports will be required from anyone trying to enter the Untied States from Canada or Mexico. Currently, most people from those countries show only a driver's licence when making a quick trip across the border. (Cox News)
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