A new survey says foreign travelers are getting what they perceive to be rude treatment when they come into the United States, and that those perceptions are driving other visitors away. Business leaders are calling for a little more politeness at U.S. entry points.
A survey commissioned by the Discover America Partnership says foreign visitors feel that they are subjected to unfriendly treatment by U.S. customs and immigration officials when entering the United States.
Geoff Freeman, executive director for the group, says those surveyed were upset at the attitudes of officials at entry points, and that is further hurting America's already-damaged image abroad.
"Travelers perceive our entry process and the treatment by government officials to be rude and arrogant," said Geoff Freeman. "It is deterring them from coming, and it is hurting America's image around the world. That is an extraordinary missed opportunity because when travelers get here and get beyond the entry process, they are far more likely to have a favorable opinion of the U.S."
The Discover America Partnership is an alliance of U.S. businesses dedicated to reducing unnecessary obstacles to travel to the United States. It includes businesses, both big and small, including such giants as the Disney Parks and Resorts, the Anheuser-Busch brewing corporation, and the Marriot Hotel chain.
The survey, conducted by the firm R.T. Strategies, polled over 2,000 travelers from more than 15 countries. Three fourths of them came from countries whose residents do not need a visa to enter the United States.
Asked to comment, Department of Homeland Security spokesman Jarrod Agen sharply disputed the study's findings.
"I would certainly characterize it as a flawed and self-serving survey," said Jarrod Agen. "It's highly subjective, and there are no recommendations in there as to how to move forward."
He says the government strives to make the entrance process as welcoming as possible, but security remains the priority.
"We do reach out to foreign governments and foreign travelers to make sure that their travel to the U.S. is a welcoming process," he said. " We have to strike the right balance between being an open nation, which we are, but we also want to make sure that we are secure as we can possibly be. So therefore you're going to have increased security at times, due to the circumstances."
Geoff Freeman says travelers and the business community fully understand the need for security, but that a better balance needs to be struck. He adds that the U.S. travel industry is offering its expertise in hospitality to U.S. agencies.
"U.S. businesses realize that welcoming visitors into this country is Public Diplomacy 101 [basic public diplomacy]. And right now we're failing at that," said Geoff Freeman. "To help the U.S. government, many in the travel industry have offered the State Department, the Department of Homeland Security, and others to help them with hospitality training, to train officials on how to conduct customer service, how to get the same security results, but do it in a way that puts a smile on the face of the customer. And it makes the whole process go much more smoothly."
Asked if the government has accepted the offer, Homeland Security spokesman Agen says U.S. agencies are looking at what he called a "variety of ways" to improve training for their officers.