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We'll leave the light on

Investing in ways to attract more tourists to the U.S. is a welcome idea financially and diplomatically.

December 01, 2007

Making an official effort to encourage overseas travelers to visit the United States once seemed redundant. Doesn't everyone already want to visit New York for theatrical talent on and off Broadway, Hawaii for beaches that rival the Caribbean's and Disneyland after winning a major sporting event?

Not anymore, apparently: Overseas travel to the United States is 17% lower than it was before 9/11. Travel to Los Angeles fell 29% in the same period, and the number of visitors to Anaheim, home of the Magic Kingdom, is down 39%. Now might be a good time to start promoting tourism, bringing back travelers' dollars and improving America's image abroad.

With tourism down since 9/11, it's easy to assume that travelers are afraid to come, or that they're staying away from an increasingly pariah nation. But it's less about foreign policy than about visa policy. The State Department instituted new security requirements -- including in-person interviews for travelers from certain countries and mandatory fingerprinting -- without upping its resources to accommodate the extra work. Travelers trying to get a visa in Brazil or India face wait times of 100 days.

And delays could get worse in 2008, when travelers will be asked to scan all 10 fingers instead of just two. Skimping on security isn't necessary, but without more resources, or at least a clear explanation of security measures, each additional requirement will take a toll on tourism -- and, with it, revenue and a sense of welcome to the world.

Would-be visitors are deterred not just by the hardships in getting to the United States, but by the assumption that they will have an unpleasant or even abusive experience once they've landed here. In a survey commissioned by a partnership of tourism-related businesses, two-thirds of travelers said they were afraid of being detained by customs officials, and many of them cited unfriendly officials and paperwork among their reasons for taking vacations elsewhere. That might explain too why travel from Canada and Mexico has remained strong: Many travelers from those countries enjoy airport-free entry, and most Canadian citizens don't need a visa to cross the border.

Travelers wary of U.S. entry procedures don't just stay home, they go elsewhere, and they show no signs of curbing those trips just because they're eager to avoid this country. Worldwide, travel has increased by 20% in the last six years. Although global travel generated more than $100 billion in 2006 -- including about $15 billion in California -- those numbers could be significantly higher if not for hindrances, actual and perceived, to visiting the United States.

And money is only part of the picture. A majority of travelers to the U.S. leave with a better opinion of the country, its people and its policies. Considering that the U.S. spends hundreds of millions of dollars on public diplomacy with dubious results and nearly nothing on promoting tourism, it might do well to invest a little money in wooing travelers.

Two bills in Congress, S 1661 and HR 3232, aim to do just that, without asking taxpayers to reach for their wallets. The Travel Promotion Act -- cosponsored by more than 150 members of Congress, including California Sens. Barbara Boxer and Dianne Feinstein -- would create an independent, nonprofit corporation to promote U.S. tourism and explain entry procedures, working with the departments of Homeland Security, State and Commerce. It initially would be funded by a $10-million federal loan, and within three years contributions from private industry and a small fee paid by international travelers would support the corporation.

It may seem contradictory to ask the very travelers we're courting to pay more money to visit, but many countries levy such charges on incoming travelers -- Britain asks Americans for $27, and Australia charges $20.

Congress should pass the legislation. These small investments and levies in travel promotion could reap big benefits for the United States in money and image. At a time when much of the world views America with suspicion and irritation, tourism gives us an opportunity to display a nation better than its government, a more humble and welcoming land. That is fundamentally in America's interests and well worth this small price.

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