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Welcome To America: Now Put Your Hands Up And Face The Wall

February 17, 2005

According to a story on CNN today, the number of foreign visitors to the U.S. is down 10 percent since the year 2000. Considering that foreign tourism to the U.S. is worth nearly 100 million dollars per year, this is cause for concern. Apparently (and this is a big secret) we're not being very nice or accommodating to people wanting to visit the U.S., projecting an image of "Fortress America."

Now, I understand the need for border security, etc. Of course, we can't let anyone who claims to have a yen to see the Grand Canyon or the Smithsonian in without some reasonable checking to ensure he is who he says he is. It's not the procedures that the tourism industry objects to: it's the manner in which these procedures are carried out, and the fact that the U.S. government doesn't seem to see what the problem is.

This afternoon, I bought beer at the supermarket. Well, stout really. Former TMC editor Erik Lounsbury and his wife are coming over for dinner on Saturday night, and they drink Guinness. The supermarket at which I shop has a checks system in place for consumers buying alcohol: the check-yourself-out process is halted, with a polite computerized voice telling you to "Please wait for attendant assistance." The clerk behind the main system looked over at me, ascertained that I was over 21, and allowed the process to continue. If I had looked to be in my early to mid-20s (it must have been the bad lighting that made her think I didn't) she would have asked me for picture identification. It was a hassle-free process, but it accomplished what it needed to: the supermarket made sure it didn't sell beer to a minor.

According to the methods of the U.S. government with regards to foreign tourists, this is what would have happened: an alarm would have sounded, a spotlight would have descended on me, and three armed officials would have approached, at which time I would have been taken to a small room, frisked and asked brusquely why I wanted to buy the beer. Three hours would have passed, and by the time I was finished the security process I would have been ready to swap the beer for a bottle of vodka and a shot glass.

According to the U.S. travel industry, we're selling a product: American tourism. The numbers don't lie. It's a huge contribution to the U.S. economy. The industry argues that while we of course need to maintain stringent security policies, the government needs to carry out these policies in a customer-friendly (or visitor-friendly) manner. They're right.

Trying to avoid making incoming visitors wait in hours-long lines would be a first step. Embarking on a public relations campaign to lure tourists by playing up the good exchange rate for foreign visitors, hotel and airline specials, highlighting special destinations and informing visitors that security policies aren't so bad after all would be a huge help.

The Federal Government spent a measly $10 million last year to lure foreign visitors. Contrast that to the $250 per year the Australian government spends to attract visitors. See a problem here? If we continue to send a message that we don't want international visitors here, they'll be sure not to come. And shorter waiting lines on "Space Mountain" for American vacationers will be small comfort.

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