May 1, 2012 at 2:48 PM ET
Boosting foreign tourism to the United States could go far to improving our economic outlook but a mystifying, costly visa process and often unwelcoming airport security and immigration will continue to hamper visits from overseas tourists if things don’t change.
That’s the assessment of travel and business experts in light of a new, multi-million-dollar, public-private international campaign designed to lure foreign visitors to our shores. Ads for the tourism campaign launched Tuesday.
Jonathan Galaviz, managing director and chief economist for Galaviz & Company, which consults on travel, economics and government, says he is mystified by how cumbersome it is for vast numbers of foreign tourists to visit this country with their cash.
“It’s a low-hanging economic fruit waiting for us to grab,” Galaviz said. “Asian economies have been doing relatively well and the United States relatively poorly. One of the best ways to remedy that is to attract those who have money to come visit the United States. It’s a very basic thing to do. It’s shocking, quite frankly, that the focus on this is just coming now. It should have been (a priority) since 2008.”
The new tourism campaign unveiled this spring includes a commercial showcasing a bouncy song by country singer Rosanne Cash (“It’s closer than it seems, come find your land of dreams”) who sings superimposed with video snippets of iconic U.S. tourist sites from New Orleans to the California redwoods.
More than 62 million international visitors traveled to the U.S. in 2011 and generated a record $153 billion in revenue, according to the Commerce Department. A projected 65.4 million foreign travelers will visit America in 2012.
In January, President Obama did announce plans to ease the process of acquiring a visa for tourists from China and Brazil to visit the United States. Previously, it could take months to acquire a visa, including repeat visits to an embassy — difficult for those tourists who did not live near one — which means many tourists simply do not make the effort.
John W. Cavanaugh, Ph.D., President and CEO of Cross Cultural Communications in Columbus, Ohio, a company that consults on multicultural diversity, says easing travel hassles for foreign tourists is critical for the economy. That includes remaking both airport security and cumbersome immigration checks for foreign tourists.
“We’re still trying to recover from ... the aftermath of 9/11 attacks,” he said. “Travel is still somewhat onerous here. Every time we have a new threat like the shoe bomber, everyone has to take their shoes off. It becomes very problematic and makes travel very inconvenient. Foreign tourists are sometimes fingerprinted and hassled. We’re still stuck in a war-on-terror mindset.”
And that means those foreign tourists often choose to plunk their currency down in other countries, Cavanaugh said. That’s certainly true in his own family: his wife was born in Costa Rica, and her relatives find coming to the United States to visit a real annoyance.
“They’d rather go to Europe,” he said. “It’s easier for them to go there than face the indignity of coming here.”
The U.S. Travel Association, a major national trade group, has called on the federal government to take steps to reduce such unnecessary hassles and barriers to international travel while maintaining necessary security requirements.
Roger Dow, president and CEO of the group, in March testified before the Congress that "it is unconscionable that in a time of weak economic growth, followed by deep recession, inefficient security and travel facilitation programs caused America to leave so much economic prosperity on the table.”
Increasing travel in the United States is the most effective form of economic stimulus, said Dow in his testimony, but problems here must be fixed: "The principle barriers to increased travel to and within the United States are the inefficiencies, uncertainties and delays that characterize our visa, entry and passenger screening process. These self-imposed restrictions discourage Americans and overseas visitors from traveling to and within the United States."
Patrick Smith, an airline pilot, air travel columnist and author from the Boston area, agreed things have got to change.
“We can begin by making the visa application process less cumbersome, expensive and hostile,” Smith said. “It is virtually impossible for people in many countries to obtain a tourist visa to the United States.”
And don’t get him started on how foreign tourists are greeted upon arrival. “I’ve kind of stood to the side and watched people coming through,” Smith said. “Some of the immigration staff are extremely professional and polite and sometimes not. There is a reputation out there it the United States is not a friendly place to visit.”
That includes the tourism visa process. “You apply for the visa and if you’re denied, you don’t get the money back,” Smith said. “You stand to lose a substantial investment if your visa is denied — $100 to $200. Why risk that when you can just go to Canada?”
More stories you might like: