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"Congress Looks at Declining Visits to US"



Thursday, July 5, 2007

Congress Looks at Declining Visits to US
By JIM ABRAMS
The Associated Press

 
The United States has lost billions of dollars and an immeasurable amount of
good will since Sept. 11, 2001, terrorism attacks nearly six years ago
because of a decline in foreign tourists. Several senators are now trying to
get the government involved in bringing those visitors back.

The Senate Commerce Committee has approved a bill to establish a nonprofit
public-private corporation to promote the United States as a tourist
destination and clear up misperceptions about U.S. travel policies. It also
would create a new office in the Commerce Department to work with other
agencies on fixing visa policies and entry processes that discourage visits.

Visits to the United States from countries outside of Canada and Mexico
totaled 21.7 million in 2006, down 17 percent from a peak of 26 million in
2000, according to Commerce Department figures. In the same period,
cross-border travel around the world was up 20 percent.

"The global pie of international travel is steadily increasing, while the
U.S. share has been slowly decreasing," said Roger Dow, president and CEO of
the Travel Industry Association.

Visits from the six countries that provide the most tourists - Britain,
Japan, Germany, France, South Korea and Australia - have dropped 15 percent
since 2000 while travel from those six to other countries was up a robust 39
percent. There were 4.2 million arrivals from Britain, last year, down 11
percent from 2000, and 3.7 million visits from Japan, down 27 percent.

"It's a situation that really is disastrous when you take into account the
overall global trends in international travel, and the fact that the U.S.
currency makes travel to the country so attractive," said Adam Sacks,
managing director for tourism economics at Oxford Economics. The weakening
of the dollar against the euro and other currencies makes the money of
foreign tourists go further.

Oxford Economics, in a recent analysis of travel policies written with
former Homeland Security Department Secretary Tom Ridge, said the 17 percent
drop in visits since 2000 has cost the United States $100 billion in lost
visitor spending, almost 200,000 jobs and $16 billion in lost tax receipts.

It noted that the United States is the only global destination without an
ongoing program to promote itself. Greece spends $150 million a year,
Australia $113 million and Britain $90 million.

"We have lacked a coordinated program to promote travel to our country,"
said Sen. Byron Dorgan, D-N.D., one of the sponsors of the Senate bill.

The new corporation envisioned by the bill would be funded by industry
contributions and a $10 user fee levied on travelers from the 27 countries
participating in a visa waiver program with the United States.

But industry experts also stressed that increased advertising about the
wonders of Broadway or the Grand Canyon must be accompanied by changes in
the visa and entry systems that keep people away.

Geoff Freeman, executive director of the Discover America Partnership, a
business group working to improve the U.S. image, said 70 percent of foreign
visitors have a great experience once they get beyond the airport. At a time
when many in the world have negative feelings about the United States, 74
percent return from visits with favorable views.

"Unfortunately the first three hours" - trying to get through customs - "is
creating a poor impression and becoming a great barrier to coming," Freeman
said. European papers are "filled with horror stories about why you don't
want to come to the U.S."

Entry problems are hardly confined to tourists. Investors from countries
such as Brazil or India, where it can take months to get a visa, may take
their business elsewhere. People willing to pay considerable amounts to
study in the United States or receive medical treatment here may consider
other options.

The Oxford study recommended that the United States expand the visa waiver
program and apply the proposed $10 visa waiver fee to both promotion and
entry security improvements including hiring more border and customs
officers.

It said such steps could increase overseas travel to this country by nearly
1.6 million visitors a year, and yield $8 billion in new visitor spending
and $850 million in federal tax revenue.


The bill is S. 1661.

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