So, another year older, and happy birthday to you, America. We may have lost our way on some original ideals, but the country still stands throughout the world for certain principles, and foreigners are showing they believe in us too – by staying the hell away.
Overall foreign visitor numbers and spending are back up to where they were before international travel dropped after 9-11, but the tourism industry points out that’s due to greater numbers coming from Mexico and Canada. Other markets, including parts of Europe, still haven’t recovered, and the U.S. is missing out on growth, losing market share to other sites, the industry says.
Why? And particularly why aren’t Europeans coming, whose mighty euro could make handmade cowboy boots and Disney hotels a positive bargain? Well, getting a visa is an inconvenient, annoying process, although it’s not necessary for most short-term Western European visitors. But the actual arrival process is seen as a vaguely scary, inconvenient, unpleasant hassle.
The last time I traveled to the U.S., in April, I got to be an undercover American. The husband’s not a U.S. citizen, and this time the official in the arrivals area told us to go to the non-citizen line if we wanted to stick together. (The time before I got to elevate the husband to the citizens’ line. That’s just one more small way air traveler policy is inconsistent.) So, in the airport at 1:30 in the morning, with two small children in tow, we got to wait about an hour just to get through immigration. My compatriots in the other line were of course out much sooner, although not as soon as they’d like, I’m sure.
These travel issues are related to the more serious issue of how the Bush administration, while cavalier about citizen’s rights, has presented a complete disregard for rights of non-citizens. Sitting abroad considering a trip, you like to hear a country emphasizing its respect for universal human rights, not carving away what a non-citizen is considered entitled to.
So tourists are staying away because they’re afraid of being tortured and slapped in Guantanamo without a trial? No, of course not. Well, not really. But continuing coverage of the U.S.’s view of the downgrading of legal rights for anyone from outside its own borders combines with an impression of the U.S. officials that visitors do have contact with – in airports and to a lesser extent in embassies – as brusque and omnipotent to make some travelers say, “Hey, how about Rome this year?”
At times, though, the U.S. has been seen as a human rights supporter. And Americans have also been known for a few lighter virtues – among them, competence and friendliness, not to mention a good service culture. We get stuff done, and we do it with a smile; maybe a superficial smile, but it’s cheery while it lasts.
But this arrivals hall mess is not the America Europeans knew and loved (to spend money in). We can’t even manage the lines efficiently. You visit a poor country, you get a long, hot wait in line when you first arrive, you sort of expect that. Although many poor countries, which know they need tourism revenue, doubtless have a more streamlined entry process. But America? Home of the assembly line, fast food and the Disney line pass? You expect better. (And it seems officials have recently consulted with groups including amusement parks to get tips on line management.)
And how else are we trying to attract visitors? Well, tourism industry lobbying got a bill through a Senate committee that would increase marketing of the U.S. – paying for that in part by a 10 bucks per visitor charge. That’s sure to improve visitors’ impressions of traveling here. And at the same time, we’re coming up on the expiration date for regulations about data that must be collected from European travelers to the U.S. – that collection raised privacy concerns in Europe before and a new proposal to have European travelers register 48 hours before flying to the U.S. has raised further concerns.
Driving away tourists with incompetent treatment isn’t a terrorism deterrent, it’s simply mismanagement. Americans themselves are getting a taste of how this works with the current passport fiasco. If you pass a law requiring Americans to show passports on their return from Canada, Mexico, Bermuda and the Caribbean, then you have to expect people will, uh, obey the law and so need to…apply for passports. But no one planned properly for that, so passports waits are now several months long and extra State Department personnel are being dragged in from wherever possible to try to reduce the backlog of millions.
Americans have some resources of last resort to try, including contacting their congressperson, if they’re having trouble with a U.S. government agency. Foreigners, as the U.S. makes abundantly clear, have much fewer options. Decisions to live in the U.S. are usually backed by more compelling reasons than a decision to just visit, so while immigrants might put up with lousy treatment, tourists can just go elsewhere.
But those visitors staying away is a backhanded compliment. They know what they’d like to see in America, they know what they should see. One day they’ll be back.