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Group Seeks to Bring International Tourism Dollars Back to US

America's tourism industry is expressing alarm over a sharp decrease in the number of international visitors to the United States. The downturn has prompted a consortium of American businesses to call on Congress to ease restrictions for visitors from nations outside North America. VOA's Robert Raffaele has the story.

The U.S. Commerce Department says more than two million fewer people from five key nations visited the United States in 2005, compared to 2000. Those nations -- Britain, Japan Germany, France and Brazil -- had been America's largest source of overseas visitors, and their absence is being felt.

The Travel Industry Association reports the U.S. saw a loss of $43 billion in visitor spending in 2005 alone. A coalition of U.S. businesses is calling on the nation to spruce up its welcome mat.

The Discover America Partnership wants Congress to approve a series of proposals, aimed at boosting incoming tourism. One of them is charging a $10 fee for travelers from so-called "Visa Waiver" nations. The U.S. does not require visitors from those 27 nations to obtain a visa for a stay of 90 days or less. The group says the proposed fee would result in $200 million annually, to pay for increased border security and tourism promotion.

Former U.S. Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge is a consultant for the Discover America Partnership. "Our connectivity to the rest of the world depends upon the rest of the world's access to us,” he says. “If we can improve access, we improve travel, we can do it in a way that we do not compromise security, in fact, one could argue -- improve security."

A survey commissioned by the group asked some 2,000 international tourists about their perceptions of the U.S. visa and entry policies. By more than a two-to-one margin, respondents said the U.S. had the world's "worst" entry system. Sixty-six percent said they feared they would be detained for hours, because of simple mistakes.

Ridge says speeding up the visa application process for non-waiver tourists would be a positive step. "If we could tell the world that there's a 30-day window, that we will process you, and interview and process you within 30 days, that creates an entirely differently kind of environment . We're not doing fewer interviews, we're just doing them quicker."

Ridge called the Visa Waiver fee a fair proposal. He pointed out that many countries charge international tourists entry or exit fees.