Wednesday, 22 October 2003

International tourism to the USA still falling

Yesterday the USA Department of Commerce released its latest revised Forecast of International Travel to the United States, with actual, estimated, and predicted numbers of visitors from each regioin of the world for 2001 through 2007.

Despite the upbeat tone of the DOC press release announcing the latest revisons, the real story in the statistics is that the USA is bucking the global trend: while travel in the rest of the world has been recovering, international travel to the USA has continued to decline each year since 2000 — this will be the third successive year that international visitor numbers in the USA have been less than the prior year.

The USA is one of the world’s most popular destinations. Inbound international tourists spent US$7 billion more in the USA in 2002 than Americans spent abroad, making tourism the largest single contributor in the services sector of the economy to the USA balance of payments. Keeping would-be visitors from coming here and spending their money is enormously costly, as well as difficult.

But that hasn’t kept the Homeland Security Department from giving it the old college try, with remarkable (and unfortunate) resuts. Around the world, the USA has acquired a reputation for hostility, harassment, and hassles at borders and airports. More and more of my friends from abroad are questioning whether it’s worth putting up with all that, not to mention having the details of their reservations sent to the government of the USA, or whether to take their holiday somewhere else this year. As the numbers show, these impressions are widespread.

And it’s going to get worse: new rules have just gone into effect under which all foreigners who need visas to visit the USA (about 90% of the world’s population), must go to a U.S. Consulate or Embassy and be interviewed in person before they can be issued even a transit visa to change planes in the USA (!), much less a visa to visit the USA as a tourist.

Tourism officials expect that to be a disaster for regions of the USA that depend on revenues from international visitors. At a meeting of the Bay Area Travel Writers last Saturday, Laurie Armstrong of the San Francisco Convention and Visitors Bureau said they’ve been putting more effort into lobbying Congress not to sabotage the inbound tourism industry. But even in the Bay Area, one of the places likely to be hardest hit, there’s little sign of leadership against anti-tourism measures from the local Congrsssional delegation.

Brazilians, for example, love the Bay Area, and considered it practically their “second home” when I saw them play (and win) here in the 1994 World Cup. But someone in say, Manaus, now has to travel over a thousand miles to the nearest U.S. Consulate for an interview, just to apply for a tourist visa — with no guarantee that the visa will be approved. The U.S. Embassy in Brasilia is starting to schedule a road show of “visa interview days” in cities without consulates, but tourism from Brazil and other large countries such as Argentina, Russia, Chile, and China, is still expected to decline even further with the new rules.

I hope foreigners won’t judge the USA by its border gauards — I certainly try not to judge the people in countries I visit by the way I get treated in the immigration queue. But I also hope Americans, particularly in Congress, will recognize the value of welcoming visitors, before it’s too late and we’ve alienated them all, or closed our borders, permanently.

Link | Posted by Edward on Wednesday, 22 October 2003, 21:39 ( 9:39 PM)
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