Two U.S. Congressmen have introduced legislation aimed at improving America's image abroad by promoting international tourism to the United States. The bill would establish a competitive $50 million grant to boost international business and leisure travel to America from five target countries. As VOA's Cindy Saine reports from Washington, the program will also seek to give foreign tourists a friendlier welcome at U.S. airports and other entry points.
At a news conference on Capitol Hill, Congressman Sam Farr, a Democrat representing California's scenic central coast, summed up how fewer foreign tourists are coming to America.
"International travelers aren't coming to America and figures show it," he said. "The U.S. has experienced a 17 percent decline in overseas visitors since September 11, 2001."
A Pew Global Attitudes Project survey from 2006 confirms that favorable opinions of the U.S. have fallen substantially in most of the 15 countries surveyed since the year 2000. The survey says the war in Iraq has had a negative impact on opinion of America not only in predominately Muslim countries, but also in Europe and Asia.
Another recent survey by the Discover America Partnership group found that international travelers ranked the United States as having the world's worst entry process. The study also revealed a general perception abroad that the U.S. is not welcoming to foreign visitors.
Congressman Farr says he believes Americans are among the friendliest, most helpful and most accepting people in the world. But he thinks the current "fortress America" image comes from a combination of factors.
Kids have access to Ipods and media, they've just seen America as a very violent country, they're afraid to come here," he said. "Frequent travelers find that when they come now they get hassled and it's uncomfortable for them, they are distinguished people."
The co-sponsor of the tourism bill, Representative Jon Porter, says the U.S. should be secure and welcoming at the same time.
"The problem is that right now there is this perception that we're not as friendly as we really are," he said. "And because of our emphasis on security, homeland security, I think that the pendulum has swung too far, and that is how we are treating our visitors."
Porter, a Republican from the state of Nevada, represents another popular tourist destination, Las Vegas. His state has used hospitality industry workers to train transportation security employees to be friendlier to arriving tourists and business travelers.
Under the tourism bill, local, state and private tourism initiatives would be able to compete for grants to inform and attract tourists.
The five-year, $50 million tourism bill would initially focus only on five countries that currently have the most nationals traveling to the U.S.: Canada, Mexico, the United Kingdom, Japan and Germany.
The congressmen agree that the best antidote to a tarnished image is for foreign tourists to come to the U.S. and experience its landscape, its people, its music and its food for themselves.