Tourism promoters in the United States are voicing concern over a decline in the number of overseas visitors to the country. A leading industry lobby group says tourist travel from most countries has fallen in recent years, and the U.S. has lost 60 million international travelers since September 11th, 2001. Officials in major tourist hubs say perceived difficulties in visiting the U.S. since 9/11 are partly to blame. Steve Mort reports for VOA.
Orlando, Florida is one of America's top tourist destinations. The local visitor's bureau says the city attracts around 50 million visitors a year -- three-point-five million from abroad. They come to see Disney World and other internationally known sights. More than half of Orlando's foreign visitors come from Europe, 24 percent from Canada and the rest from South America, Asia and the Middle East.
Danielle Courtney from the Orlando Convention and Visitors Bureau says a decline in international travel to the city is troubling.
"It's a very important segment to Orlando,? says Courtney. ?It is about five percent of our total tourism, but it makes up 17 percent of our economic impact. So it is a very high value segment, so obviously getting into the United States and the perceptions of the United States is of high importance to us."
Other destinations, such as Las Vegas, have actually seen a rise in international arrivals. Tourism industry experts say the percentage of foreign visitors to the city increased from 12 to 13 percent from 2005 to 2006. But nationally, the trend is down, according to a survey by the Discover America Partnership, a tourism industry lobby group.
Executive Director Geoff Freeman says a 20 percent fall in overseas travel to the United States since September 11th, 2001 can be attributed to problems encountered by arriving visitors.
"Just this week we heard of three-hour long delays to get through the customs process in Los Angeles,? says Freeman. ?That's simply not acceptable. In addition to that, our survey showed that travelers are more fearful of U.S. government officials than they are of the threat of terrorism or crime. It's those types of fears and these types of perceptions that are deterring travelers from visiting the U.S. and it's this that we need to address".
The U.S. Commerce Department says the overall number of international visitors to America did return to pre-9/11 levels in 2006. But the increase came mostly from neighboring Canada and Mexico. Travel from most other places has dropped. This is in spite of the weak U.S. dollar offering a favorable exchange rate to foreign travelers.
The agency in charge of screening passengers at U.S. ports of entry, like this one at Houston's international airport, rejects charges that it is to blame for the decline. The U.S. Customs and Border Protection agency says it processes more than a million people entering the U.S. every day -- 250,000 at U.S. airports. The head of border security, Robert Jackstam, says the government is trying hard to strike a balance.
"Our goal is that when people arrive at our ports of entry we want them to feel that this is a welcoming nation, and then we want to make sure we get them though the process, but at the same time addressing our national security concerns and making sure the people who are arriving have the proper documentation," says Jackstam.
Jackstam points to several programs aimed at improving the experience of international travelers to the U.S. One initiative launched in January 2006, intends to help visitors figure out what documents they need before they arrive, and streamline the customs and immigration process. Another focuses on updating arrival areas, training customs agents and providing information to travelers. Jackstam also says U.S. Customs and Border Protection is working with the tourist industry on ways to make the system better.
"We also make sure we have the best queuing system in place,? adds Jackstam. ?And we have reached out to various organizations, amusement park groups, to see what is the best way to handle the queue-lines and what the most efficient way, and we've talked to them and we've put various methods in place that we think can help facilitate people through the process."
But in Orlando, the drop in foreign visitors, particularly from Europe and Asia, remains a concern. Tourism officials hope more marketing might help. For example, the Orlando Convention and Visitors Bureau is doubling advertising spending in the UK to entice people away from other destinations such as Eastern Europe or the Middle East.
And the Discover America Partnership is pushing the U.S. Congress to pass legislation introducing exit fees and imposing tariffs on people traveling to the U.S. without a visa. The group says the plan would provide $200 million in much needed in cash to increase marketing of the United States to overseas tourists.