Faced with a decline in the number of overseas visitors and unpopular entry requirements, the U.S. government is turning to the Walt Disney Co. and other theme park operators to brighten the country’s battered image.
With security much tightened since the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, the visa and entry processes are so unpopular that the country was ranked as the world’s most unfriendly to visitors in a survey last month of travelers from 16 nations.
Last January, the government promised to work with the private sector to create a more welcoming environment without compromising security.
But the “Rice-Chertoff Joint Vision” announced by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and then Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff has yet to become reality.
So far, applying for American visas still involves standing for hours in long lines at fortress-like embassies. Stern immigration officials at American airports often inspire fear, according to the survey.
Enter the U.S. travel industry, which has watched with concern the parallel trends of rising anti-American feeling around the world and declining visitor numbers. Since Sept. 11, 2001, industry leaders say, the government has tended to see foreign visitors as potential threats, and the screening process reflects that view.
“We have missed an opportunity to make people feel welcome,” said Jay Rasulo, chairman of Walt Disney Parks and Resorts. “The whole process must be friendlier and more efficient. We must invest in creating a first impression of hospitality and friendliness at our borders.”
The Rice-Chertoff plan ranged from cutting waiting times for visas to a project to turn the international airports at Dulles, outside Washington, and Houston into models of friendliness and efficiency to be emulated by others.
Progress on the “model airports” plan has been slow.
Mid-level officials from the two departments and representatives of travel groups and three big theme park operators — Disney Parks and Resorts, Anheuser-Busch Cos. Inc. and Universal Studios — made a first tour of Dulles in November. Houston still awaits a walk-through.
The theme park experts saw considerable room for improvement, according to some of the participants. They did not want to be named until their recommendations are published in a White Paper assessing what progress has been made on the anniversary of the Rice-Chertoff initiative.
One participant said the experts had taken note of the long, drab corridors at Dulles, long lines of visitors and a lot of empty immigration agents’ booths, which added to the wait time.
“First impressions are important,” Rasulo said in an interview. “The first 100 steps in an airport are important. The entry sequence is what sets you in the mood to have a good time.”
Climate of fear and frustration
So far, the entry sequence contributes to “a climate of fear and frustration,” according to Geoff Freeman, executive director of the Discover America Partnership, a group set up in September to push for a better system.
The partnership was behind the survey of foreign visitors and it also found that visitors fear American immigration officials more than they fear terrorism or crime.
The Department of Homeland Security has questioned the survey’s methodology and stressed that their first priority is to keep the United States safe.
Travel industry leaders say that turning the United States back into a visitor-friendly country goes beyond bottom-line matters of lost revenue and jobs, though those are substantial.
Statistics from the Travel Industry Association show that the U.S. share in world tourism declined from 7.4 percent in 2000 to 6 percent last year.
A one percentage point increase would mean 7.5 million additional arrivals, $12.3 billion in additional spending, 150,000 additional U.S. jobs, $3.3 billion in additional payroll and $2.1 billion in additional taxes, it said.
But more visitors would also help to reduce anti-American sentiment, which a series of global opinion polls have shown to be running at unprecedented highs. “Welcoming visitors into this country is Public Diplomacy 101,” said Freeman.
”Foreigners who have visited the U.S. have more positive attitudes than those who have not.”
The State Department, whose functions include shaping opinion in other countries, reports progress in making the application process for temporary visitors more transparent and in cutting down wait times, particularly in India and China.
But a page on the department’s still shows, for example, a 101-day wait for Brazilians and a 71-day delay for foreigners applying in Toronto.
According to the Discover America Partnership, the number of overseas visitors dropped by 17 percent between 2000 and 2006 and business travel in that period has dropped 10 percent.
Last year, around 50 million overseas visitors (not counting Mexicans and Canadians) came to the United States, placing it third on the list of top destinations after Spain and France.