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Tourists Finding It's a Big World After All

Security restrictions and the U.S. role in Iraq are keeping foreigners away, tourism officials say.

September 13, 2006|Joel Havemann | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — Democrats and liberal academics have been complaining for years that President Bush's foreign policy has turned the United States into an international pariah.

Now they have an unexpected ally: Disneyland.

The international travel business is thriving everywhere -- except in the United States, whose share of global tourism is plummeting in step with America's image around the world.

The nation's tourism industry says hostility toward the U.S. role in Iraq has kept foreigners out of the United States in droves, and security restrictions designed to keep the United States safe from terrorists are unnecessarily restrictive and stoking anti-Americanism worldwide.

In an effort to change that, representatives of the travel industry -- as large as the Disney Co. and as small as the Greater Des Moines Convention and Visitors Bureau -- are converging on Washington today to launch the Discover America Partnership, which aims to restore some of the billions of dollars in international tourism that the U.S. lost in the first half of this decade.

"Tourism is booming around the world, and we're not participating in it," said Jay Rasulo, chairman of Walt Disney Parks and Resorts. He also heads the U.S. Travel and Tourism Advisory Board, a group of 14 industry executives that works closely with the Commerce Department.

The board told the department last week that the United States had lost billions of dollars and millions of jobs as its overall share of foreign travel fell from 9% to 6% from 2000 to 2005.

Los Angeles -- second to New York in the number of foreign visitors -- suffered a decline as well, with more than 3.5 million international tourists in 2000 and 2.5 million five years later, according to Commerce Department statistics.

Driving the drop are tensions surrounding the Iraq war, terrorism and difficult U.S. relationships with some countries. Between 2000 and 2006, surveys by the Pew Research Center showed a plunge in the percentage of people holding favorable opinions of the United States: from 83% to 56% in Britain, 78% to 37% in Germany, 50% to 23% in Spain and 77% to 63% in Japan.

Then there are the security restrictions put in place after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. Tourism executives shake their heads at the thought of Indians who have to wait up to 100 days for a U.S. travel visa. They tell of Brazilians who must travel hundreds of miles to one of the four facilities in Brazil where, for $100, they apply in person for a visa.

"Many legitimate potential international visitors now deliberately avoid travel to the U.S. due to real and perceived barriers to entry," said the Travel and Tourism Advisory Board.

A survey in June by the Travel Industry Assn., an advocacy group for the tourism business, found that 77% of travel agents worldwide thought the United States was more difficult to visit than other countries.

"We're not a welcoming country," said Geoff Freeman, executive director of the Discover America Partnership. "Most countries ask people to come visit them. We have more of a fortress appearance."

That will become even stronger in January, at least for travelers in the Western Hemisphere, when the U.S. plans to require passports from everyone -- including Americans -- who enters by air or sea from another country in this hemisphere. In 2008, that is to include those who return by land and are used to showing only a driver's license or a similar form of identification after a quick trip across the border into Canada or Mexico.

America's loss of market share in international travel has almost exactly offset the growth in the number of international tourists. According to the Commerce Department, the number of foreigners who entered the United States last year -- more than 49 million -- was 1.5 million fewer than the total in 2000, before the terrorist attacks and the war in Iraq.

But as the international tourism pie has grown in overall size, the U.S. slice has gotten smaller.

The Travel and Tourism Advisory Board estimates that the U.S. travel industry has lost $286 billion compared with what it would have taken in had the United States maintained its all-time high market share -- 9.6%, achieved in 1992.

The industry's profits are not the only things that have suffered.

Three studies early last year by the market research firm GMI found that foreigners who had visited the United States held more favorable opinions of this country and its people than did those who had not.

"This demonstrates that the U.S. travel and tourism industry has an important role to play in improving the image of the U.S. abroad," the Travel Industry Assn. concluded.

Disney's Rasulo, in his capacity as chairman of the Travel Industry Assn., is spearheading the Discover America Partnership.

Its goals, he said, are to achieve a more comfortable balance between the nation's security needs and its interest in foreign tourism; to organize a national campaign to market the United States as an international tourist destination; and to gain a voice for the tourism industry when the government considers policies that would affect travel.

Rasulo suggested the possibility of government funding of tourism promotion, possibly in the form of an exit tax on foreigners as they leave the United States.

He said Commerce Secretary Carlos M. Gutierrez had agreed to represent the travel industry in discussions with other agencies, such as the State Department and the Department of Homeland Security.

"Other countries have publicly supported efforts to sell themselves," Rasulo said. "By and large, we have abandoned the task of marketing America."

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joel.havemann@latimes.com

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