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Insta-CoGo: Where Have All the Tourists Gone?

Cindy Loose

The dollar is so depressed compared with the euro and most other currencies in the developed world that you'd think overseas travelers would be flocking to the United States to scoop up bargains.

Yet they are staying away in droves. There were 2 million fewer overseas travelers to the States in 2007 than in 2000, even though there was a 10 percent increase in 2006, according to the U.S. Department of Commerce. In other words, since 9/11, the number of overseas travelers has been slowly creeping back toward pre-9/11 numbers. Given how much of a bargain we've become, and given an overall increase in travel, this country should be awash in visitors.

In fact, the United States had 10 million fewer overseas visitors in 2007 than it would have if it simply kept pace with post-9/11 travel trends.

Theories, anyone, of why people with vacation money are traveling like mad, but avoiding our fair land?

The travel industry is focusing on solving the problem. Legislation called the "Travel Promotion Act" is currently being considered in Congress. Under the act, visitors from "visa waiver" countries -- in other words, visitors from places that we don't require to pay for a visa -- would pay a fee, probably about $10, to the U.S. government when visiting. That would raise an estimated $100 million. The travel industry would match that, and the $200 million would be used to promote travel to the United States.

The United States, by the way, is one of the rare countries that doesn't have a national tourism program.

Sound good?

By Cindy Loose |  March 11, 2008; 7:08 AM ET  | Category:  Cindy Loose , Insta-CoGo
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Geez, could it simply be that it's because the government has made it much more difficult for people to enter the States? Before, Europeans didn't have to apply for a visa just to visit. (It allows a tourist to enter over a 10 period after a background check.) Plus, every tourist needs to be fingerprinted. Just look at the huge, slow lines that foreign tourists need to stand in to enter the States.

Make it difficult for people to enter into the States and they will stay away.

Posted by: charlie m | March 11, 2008 7:35 AM

Difficult for people to get in, and I might also hazard that if they don't agree with our political endeavors (for whatever reason) they might not come here to feed our economy and thus extend them.

Posted by: Anonymous | March 11, 2008 9:07 AM

I agree; security has become nearly draconian for foreign visitors. Not to mention that good old American xenophobia isn't exactly the best way to make people from other cultures feel welcome.

Posted by: M Street | March 11, 2008 9:43 AM

I lived abroad for a year a few years ago. Most of the Europeans I ran into were very Anti-American, mostly for political reasons, and had no desire to travel here. One had a story of a friend who'd gone to Florida and ended up being hauled off by INS for something which turned out to be a misunderstanding. Regardless, it scared the bejeebers out of him and he hightailed it back to England. I suppose those types of sensational stories do get around.

Posted by: non frequent flyer | March 11, 2008 9:48 AM

I'm going the xenophobia route. Why should people come and visit a country where they think they'll be attacked?

Then again, I think Europe is a little willfully blind about our supposed xenophobia - in larger, tourist-oriented areas (NYC, DC, LA, Chicago), it's not necessarily something you see as often.

The racism and extreme right-wing fanaticism of some elements of our country makes for good press. We're not a perfect country, lord knows, but not all of us attack Top Gear presenters who are stupid enough to write "Man Love Rules" on the back of their car as they drive through rural Alabama.

For instance - if I was an African-American, I'd personally drop Switzerland off my tourist attraction list due to personal safety reasons because of this:

Posted by: Chasmosaur | March 11, 2008 10:02 AM

Yep, it's got to be the obvious reasons everyone has already pointed out - we treat potential visitors like criminals. If I were a European looking for a simple vacation, I would take my euros somewhere I didn't think was going to throw me into jail for the rest of my life.

Posted by: h3 | March 11, 2008 10:03 AM

I live in Europe and some friends of mine (European) are getting married this summer and coming to the U.S. on their honeymoon (her second trip to the States, his first visit.) They are looking forward to it-- and plan to take advantage of the good-for-them exchange rate!

I do think it's a shame that there's not some sort of tourist board for the USA and I don't know why we don't have one. I have been to many travel shows/trade fairs here and the States is seriously the one big place that's just not being represented. A real shame because I think the U.S. has a lot to offer as a vacation destination-- and for Europeans right now it's a real value!

Posted by: American abroad | March 11, 2008 10:04 AM

oops - deleted the rest of my comment by cutting and pasting the URL.

I finished up by noting that as horrible as that incident was, I'm sure there are many lovely things to do and see in Switzerland, and you would be perfectly safe doing so. One group of people are not representative of the entire country.

Posted by: Chasmosaur | March 11, 2008 10:05 AM

As a Canadian, I avoid even stopovers in the U.S. on my way to elsewhere. Mainly it's because of security -- I am worried that I might literally look at someone the wrong way and end up on some sort of watchlist, or even in jail or worse. (And that's as a Canadian, and we enjoy far more freedom in the U.S. than most visitors!)

Regardless of my views about the American government, I have always enjoyed meeting Americans and spending time in the U.S. But I am *far* too uncomfortable to even think about visiting the U.S. for pleasure.

Posted by: jp | March 11, 2008 10:14 AM

My husband has family in England, who refused to come to our wedding last June because they were scared of all the guns and violence in the US. We tried to convince them that the small town in Virginia where we were having the wedding would be safe, but then Virginia Tech happened...

Posted by: mdr | March 11, 2008 11:07 AM

My British friends say they loved to visit the USA until the government equated "foreign" with "terrorist." They think the fingerprinting thing is downright demeaning.

Posted by: Rich | March 11, 2008 11:12 AM

I've been to the USA many times and I love the place and the people but the increased security measures at the airports totally discourage me from visiting. Yes, better security is good, but at least remember that the vast majority of people are there on business or pleasure and stop treating them as terrorists.

Posted by: IM - Ireland | March 11, 2008 11:33 AM

Although I think the new entry requirements have had a big effect, I think there is a subtler "Bush effect" going on. Now, I am no fan of the man but I think things may have gone a little overboard in reporting what he has done to our country. The worst is what some of foreign press outlets report. If you did nothing but read the Guardian or Le Monde, you would think that we are alternately one step away from anarchy or totalitarianism. After spending a month in Germany this winter, I half-expected to see hoards of gun-toting maniacs roaming the streets and armies of Brownshirts kicking in doors looking for Enemies of the Republic. Imagine my surprise when not only did I not see any of those things but I actually had a Customs Agent smile at me and say hello. Granted, people still drove like jerks but no one shot at me for changing lanes. I think it is time for a charm offensive, something along the lines of "Cool Britannica" (I vote for "We Heart Euros" or "He's Almost Gone, Please Come Back") to remind people that you can't always believe what you read. And if the tourist industry is willing to pony up $100M to do it, so much the better.

Posted by: J-man | March 11, 2008 11:35 AM

My husband is English and when we came to the States once, he wrote on his form his country was England (which is how he sees himself) He was yelled at, made to go to the back of a long line and told to fill in his form correctly- he is from the UK not England! At least as far as DHS is concerned. Of course he has to go back to see the in-laws, but with that sort of treatment would you come back again to spend your money if you didnt have to?

Posted by: London girl | March 11, 2008 11:37 AM

"He's Almost Gone, Please Come Back"

Seriously, that's brilliant. Just the right combination of emotions. It would be a perfect slogan.

Posted by: Andy | March 11, 2008 11:56 AM

It is hardly surprising that tourists are reluctant to visit the US when Mr Chertoff and DHS is busy putting roadblocks in their way. Indeed it seems as if Mr Chertoff is intent upon gutting the visa waiver program in the name of National Security; that should finally deter tourism. Of course the fact that the 911 hijackers had valid visas is ignored. One might also point out that a $10 tourist charge will, at least theoretically, deter tourists further, since you have just increased the cost of visiting the US.

Posted by: Ian | March 11, 2008 12:08 PM

"He's Almost Gone, Please Come Back"
I love this! Can we get t-shirts?

Posted by: h3 | March 11, 2008 12:18 PM

I'm an American who's lived in Ukraine for seven years, and I don't like visiting the States - and I can imagine why European tourists would avoid the US as well.

Since 9/11, America has become hosile toward travelers. Suspicious DHS agents, drug/bomb dogs, invasiive bagggage checks (with no regrets over the damage they do in the national interest), and bossy TSA screeners with GEDs and badges are only part of the problem. The US has become a terribly oppressive place.

Maybe Obama will reverse the situation and I can enjoy coming 'home' again.

Posted by: Scott | March 11, 2008 12:23 PM

I have to agree with everyone who says that it's the extremely unfriendly attitude of DHS. There are innumerable word of mouth stories going around Europe about tourists who have been treated as criminals by DHS. Even in friendly little Iceland, there was a huge story a few months ago about a tourist who was put in shackles and held overnight because of a visa problem. That begins to be seen as the 'norm' for people trying to visit the US.

If we don't change the attitude of our border control folks to tourism, tourists will continue to stay away in droves, and visit more affable places.

Posted by: Red | March 11, 2008 12:33 PM

Why people are avoiding our fair land?

George W. Bush. And the people who voted for him.

Posted by: Matthew | March 11, 2008 12:37 PM

We're having the same problem inmates the world over have, visiting hours are limited, the guards are jerks and everyone gets strip-searched.


Posted by: DFinFL | March 11, 2008 12:42 PM

I think the theme is coming through loud and clear - US government attitude where foreigner = terrorist; US = torturers; DHS = jail for minor issues; stopover = possible rendition. The bigger question is really why any tourists still come!

Posted by: Colin | March 11, 2008 12:48 PM

I imagine the tourists don't like to be photographed and finger printed at our airports.

I heard the European countries are starting to do the same to American tourists.

Posted by: Mickey | March 11, 2008 1:20 PM

I have to agree the the border agents you first come in contact with aren't always the friendliest face we Americans could put forward. It's started to get better but on several occasions they have been very rude to my visa-waiver nation foreign spouse who comes with me (American wife) and our American child. He comes for under the allowed time, has never once overstayed, with sufficient funds, return ticket, etc.-- and still gets grilled just about each time he comes. Once they even grilled me when I came alone for a visit for one week-- and I'm a natural born U.S. citizen! Just because I live outside of the U.S. doesn't mean I don't have the right to visit home whevever I want to do whatever I want!

I think the idea of a fee for visa-waiver nationals would make even fewer foreigners consider trips to the U.S. I'm all for more travel to the U.S.-- as I stated earlier I think there's real value in American travel these days and lots that America has to offer the world-- but I don't see why my husband should have to pay an extra fee just because he comes to the USA once a year with his wife and son to visit his in-laws, shop 'til we drop (contributing to the American economy, including in the form of sales taxes)and do some travel and sightseeing around the U.S. If anything, it should be made even easier for visa-waiver people to come so they can have a good time, contribute to the American economy, and take home some good impressions of the States. One hears lots of stupid comments about America over here but usually it's from the people who've never been there.

Posted by: American abroad | March 11, 2008 1:34 PM

To Mickey-- The fingerprinting and photos in Europe haven't started yet-- I believe it's still in the discussion stage.

I think it's fair enough-- if we do it to other nationals, we should expect the same procedure.

Along the same lines I find it interesting that we have tougher security rules for other countries' passports than our own!

Posted by: American abroad | March 11, 2008 1:36 PM

My - we have achieved unanimity! I think word-of-mouth is probably important - I bet it only takes one tale of a friend of a friend who got handcuffed or harassed for a person to think, gee, I'd really rather find somewhere else with a favorable exchange rate.

Posted by: h3 | March 11, 2008 1:52 PM

I'm an American and I live in the US, but everytime I travel internationally the worst border experiences are always when I come home. A few months ago I took a real quick trip to Ireland and the UK. Nobody in Ireland cared. Nobody in the UK cared. But I got back here and suddenly I was answering questions about where I'd been, why I went there, who I was visiting, what I was doing, etc. Similarly, whenever my wife and I return from overseas we always get a few probing questions -- what do you do? Where'd you go to school? What was the purpose of your trip? It's offensive to have to justify yourself to a government bureaucrat when you've done nothing wrong.

As others have noted, this hostility doesn't exist elsewhere (well, assuming you're a first world tourist, that is). If you live in Europe or the Far East, it's already tough to get to the US given our geographic isolation. Why would you go out of your way to come here if you're just going to be treated like a criminal when you arrive? There are better ways to spend your money. Tourism is a market, and the customers have spoken with their feet.

Posted by: Andy | March 11, 2008 2:29 PM

Colin Powell, giving a lecture in Vero Beach, Florida yesterday afternoon, said that while Secretary of State, he'd pointed out to the President that he was getting lots of complaints from universities and tourism-related outfits that foreign students and tourists were avoiding the US in droves, and that the situation was very bad for the US.

I attended a small international meeting in Panama in January and was disturbed by stories of attendees having trouble transiting through the US.

One small bright spot is that Orlando International Airport has reorganized its arrivals terminal to make things a bit easier for those coming from abroad. About all it required was a new escalator and rearrangement of a shuttle train station.

Posted by: Dave of the Coonties | March 11, 2008 2:58 PM

We have friends in South America -both doctors with thriving practices - who have stopped coming to medical conferences and vacations in the US because of the hassle and expense of getting visas. Last year they told us it was such a pain that they dropped plans and instead spent their travel money on trips to Egypt and Russia. Our government has definitely made our country a hostile place to visit.

Posted by: Caroline | March 11, 2008 3:50 PM

"My husband is English and when we came to the States once, he wrote on his form his country was England (which is how he sees himself) He was yelled at, made to go to the back of a long line and told to fill in his form correctly- he is from the UK not England! At least as far as DHS is concerned...."

Interesting, every time I've flown from Heathrow to Dulles (whether on BA or VS) there's been an announcement made that includes a reminder to subjects of the British Crown that they should put "UK." Only time I did not hear such an announcement was on a Concorde flight into JFK, and I assume they figured that everyone on board knew the correct procedure.

Posted by: Rich | March 11, 2008 5:15 PM

I have relatives who are terrified of visiting from abroad since 9/11. But I have to tell you the Customs and Immigration people are really nice. I fly a couple of times a year out of the country and whether there are long lines or whatever, the folks are friendly, smile and say "welcome back" when I return. Dunno where you all return to but my home port is L.A.

Posted by: Shali Dore | March 11, 2008 5:55 PM

I am an American working for the U.S. government in the UK. I have lived in England for the past ten years and overseas since 1985. I agree with all the other posters that say America has become an unfriendly place for foreigners to enter. I usually don't have any problem coming back to the states as I travel on my official passport. However, there is one other factor that hasn't been discussed here - the growth of low-cost airlines in Europe over the past eight or nine years. Carriers such as Ryanair, Jet2, and bmibaby have meant that northern Europeans can travel to warmer climates for a fraction of a trans-Atlantic flight. When vacation time comes around they are more likely to travel to the friendly shores of Spain, Italy, Greece and other Mediterranean destinations.

Posted by: Leadhall | March 11, 2008 6:02 PM

The proposal is for the EU to fingerprint Americans, but it hasn't happened yet. I don notice when coming home from abroad that the lines for visitors tend to me much longer than the lines for returning Americans. Then again, I've faced horrendous lines in Mexico and in Japan--and if you've just flown 14 hours or more, a long line is the worst thing you can imagine at that moment.

I've always been treated nicely by U.S. agents when returning home, but can't say how most visitors are treated. I'm all for controlling the borders, but then again, if you're going to be more careful about who you admit, you have to realize that will take more time, and hire the necessary people to do the job. I see no excuse for making people wait and wait after a long flight.

Posted by: cindy loose | March 11, 2008 6:23 PM

So sad that such an interesting and beautiful nation is losing its tourists because of DHS. Many of the folks who work for DHS are not travelers, thus do not understand foreign cultures or even how you feel after a long flight. The US has made travel difficult for everyone, because of the CIA/FBI and other governmental agencies' inability to do their jobs. There was plenty of warning about 9/11 but our country was unable to do anything. So, now they are doing everything they can to disencourage travel, in either direction. I am an American, and have even been asked for the origin of my last name!!!! As if that is relevant to my travels.

Posted by: DB | March 12, 2008 1:35 PM

Getting non-Americans to pay for the privilege of being told to visit the US when US taxpayers won't pay is a bit rich. As an Englishman, I receive quite enough advertising without having to pay for the privilege.

Posted by: Robert | March 12, 2008 7:25 PM

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