Simple solution to US economic woes: more international tourists
International tourists are coming to the US in record numbers, prompting some observers to say they are the solution to the continuing economic crisis. Typical reaction is an Atlantic article headlined "How Tourism Can Help Save the US Economy."
That was written last summer but Fortune Magazine and the Washington Post all agree this year that international tourism is an under-valued path to prosperity and jobs in the US.
Senior Editor Derek Thompson in the Atlantic said there"s been a "lost decade" in tourism because while it grew by 46 percent, the US actually lost 2.4 million visitors. That came at a close of 440,000 jobs and a half trillion dollars in travel spending.Wrote Thompson:
"In February, 2010, the United States declared a lost decade. Not in jobs, or homes, or high- tech, but in tourism. Europe and Asia had come off a banner decade in foreign visits, with international travelers up more than 30 percent. But here was one global economic boom the US missed."
How did it happen? Three major reasons:
1.The 9-11 terrorist attack led to security policies that scared away families. 2. It became harder and more expensive to obtain visas. 3. The US over the decade was the only major country without a national tourism policy and travel promotion strategy.
No surprise. International visitors were discouraged.
More recently, the AP said that more than a decade after the terrorist attacks, "foreign visitors say getting a temporary visa remains a daunting and sometimes insurmountable hurdle."
But the tourism industry hopes to change that with a campaign to persuade Congress to overhaul the State Department's tourist visa application process.
"After 9/11, we were all shaken and there was a real concern for security, and I still think that concern exists," said Jim Evans, a former hotel chain CEO heading a national effort to promote foreign travel to the US.
Anti-immigration proponents argue travel to the US is already too accessible and that allowing more visitors would put the nation at greater risk.
The proposed immigration overhaul has largely been driven by the US Travel Association.
Lawmakers from both parties are backing changes through six bills in the US House and Senate.
For most foreigners, taking a last-minute business or leisure trip to New York, Los Angeles, Miami or other US travel hubs would be nearly impossible. The average wait time for a visa interview in Rio de Janeiro, for example, was 87 days, according to the US State Department.
The Government Accountability Office concluded that wait times are likely much longer than reported because some department employees artificially reduce the wait times by not scheduling interviews during high-demand periods.
In-person interviews that are now required were not the norm before 9/11, when consular officials had the authority to approve travelers based on an application alone. Since then, however, screenings have become more strenuous, with fingerprint checks and facial recognition screening of photographs.
Other proposed changes include granting more multi-entry visas and charging premium fees to tourists who want a visa immediately. The tourism industry also wants more visa processing officers and to allow travelers to submit applications in their native language.
To put out the welcome mat for visitors, the US, Congress last year approved a $200 million annual marketing campaign.
In the meantime, international tourists are showing growing interest in the US as a destination.
A monthly report by the federal agency, which is part of the Commerce Department, said international visitors spent $13.1 billion on travel to the US and tourism-related activities while here in October, a 13 percent increase over the same month last year.
By David Wilkening
Thursday, December 29, 2011