WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The United States has been displaced by China as the world's third most-visited country. In 2007, overseas visitors to the United States numbered 23.2 million, 11 percent fewer than in 2000. Visits from Britain, Germany, France, the Netherlands and Brazil are all still down.
These are the latest statistics from the Travel Industry Association (TIA), a Washington-based lobby group which says the government is not doing enough to dispel worldwide perceptions of the United States as unfriendly to international travellers.
As a result, billions of tourist dollars go elsewhere at a time when global travel is booming.
Since the United States began tightening security after Sept. 11, 2001, U.S. visa requirements and airport entry procedures have become the stuff of legend.
Citizens of all but 29 countries need visas to travel to the United States. This is a process that requires making an appointment for a visa interview. Once that is granted - it can take months, depending on the country -- the applicant has to report for a face-to-face interview at an American consulate.
Forget travel at short notice. Or even long notice, if you are a citizen of Brazil, the Dominican Republic, Chile, or Venezuela (where you have to wait 162 days for an interview). For an official list of wait times, see the U.S. Department of State's Web site http://travel.state.gov/visa/temp/wait/tempvisitors_wait.php.
The site features a list of reassuring promises which speak volumes about how the process is perceived by many: "We will treat you with dignity and respect ... We will treat you as an individual ... We will remember that, to you, a visa interview may be a new or intimidating experience and that you may be nervous."
Many are equally nervous once they arrive at a U.S. airport, where all foreigners are photographed and fingerprinted. In a 2006 survey commissioned by the travel industry, more than half of those polled said immigration officials were rude. Two thirds feared they might be detained for saying the wrong thing or making a simple mistake.
The U.S. entry process, the survey found, had created "a climate of fear and frustration". Fears of harassment or detention are rarely justified and the United States has no monopoly on stern-faced officials. But the perceptions are enough to make tourists think twice about visiting the United States -- despite the fact that a weak dollar has turned America into a bargain basement for Europeans.
Like most statistics, the TIA numbers tell only part of the story. The decline in overseas visits, for example, does not apply to New York, target of the attacks which spurred tight security and visa regulations in the first place. Preliminary figures for 2007 show a record 7.6 million, up from 6 million in 2000.
DON'T JUST SIT THERE
One of the reasons: New York's mayor, billionaire businessman Michael Bloomberg, has been spending millions of dollars on campaigns to promote his city. His view on the subject: "The days of New York City sitting there and saying 'we're New York, they're going to come to us' are long gone. People have alternatives to go anywhere in the world. We are in competition for tourists."
What applies to the city applies to the country as a whole but neither the federal government nor congress have embraced the concept of national tourism promotion the way it is done, for example, in Canada, Australia, France or New Zealand.
The United States is one of the few major countries that has no national campaign to attract foreign visitors -- partly a function of the widespread belief here that America is so exceptional it does not need to court anyone.
The travel industry disagrees and is lobbying fiercely for passage of a bill, the Travel Promotion Act of 2007. It would provide for $100 million drawn from a $10 surcharge levied on overseas travellers and matched by $100 million from the industry to promote tourism.
The campaign would be run by an independent, non-profit corporation whose job would be to entice foreign visitors to come to the United States and explain visa and entry regulations, and the reasons for them, more clearly than the government has done so far.
Improvements have in fact gone virtually unnoticed. Visa wait times in India, for example, have been cut sharply over the past year, from 184 days to nine days in Mumbai and just two days in New Delhi. Similarly, the time in Mexico City shrank from 91 to eight days. The bill has run into opposition from conservatives who argue that America's tourism giants -- from Disney and Marriott to Hilton and American Express -- can pay for their own promotion. The counter-argument: This is not only about money, it is also about public diplomacy, winning foreign hearts and minds by showing them the wonders of America.
There is no dispute that the image of the United States is bleak in the eyes of most of the world. There is no dispute either that people who have visited the United States tend to feel more favourable about the country than those who have not -- a string of polls attests to that.
Some of the travel industry's suggestions have been brushed outside although they involved no cost and little effort. A voluminous set of recommendations for a friendlier arrival experience includes the following: "All foreign travellers into the U.S. should be greeted at the inspection booth with the words 'Welcome to the United States...'"
You don't hear that very often.
(Bernd Debusmann is a Reuters columnist. The opinions expressed are his own. You can contact the author at Debusmann@Reuters com)