WASHINGTON – Fewer international visitors are coming to the United States since the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks, despite an initiative announced a year ago by top government officials.
In 2000, the United States was the destination for 7.5 percent of all international travelers. After the terrorist attacks, tourism plummeted. Four years later, only 6 percent of international visits were to the United States, according to the Commerce Department.
Reasons given for the decline include delays in getting visas, long lines at airports and failure to promote the U.S. abroad.
Lawmakers and travel executives are working on strategies to boost international tourism, which contributes $1.3 trillion and 7.3 million jobs to the U.S. economy, according to the Travel Industry Association.
"It's a significant part of the economy and we're losing our share," said Sen. Byron Dorgan, the North Dakota Democrat who chairs a Senate panel investigating the issue.
The decline is especially notable since the weak dollar has made visits to the U.S. cheaper for foreign tourists.
Dorgan said people hesitate to visit the United States partly because they're against the Iraq war and partly because they don't feel welcome here.
A big reason travelers feel unwanted, Dorgan said, is the length of time it takes to get a U.S. visa.
Since shortly after the Sept. 11 attacks, people who need a visa to visit the United States must apply in person so a consular official can conduct a face-to-face interview.
But in large countries like Brazil, Russia, China and India, would-be travelers have to travel quite far just to apply for the right to travel to the U.S. sometime later.
The average wait time for a visa appointment in Rio de Janeiro is 38 days, according to the State Department. In Guangzhou, 22 days.
Stevan Porter, an executive with Intercontinental Hotels and chairman of the travel group Discover America Partnership, said more consular officers are needed in places where many people travel beyond their borders. They also need to move quickly through Customs and to be treated as if they're welcome.
Henrietta Fore, undersecretary of State for Management, acknowledged Tuesday that the consular offices are understaffed, though more officers have been hired. She said President Bush will request even more consular officers next week in his 2008 budget, but she wouldn't say how many.
On Jan. 17, 2006, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff unveiled a flat-screen monitor at Dulles International Airport and announced the "Rice-Chertoff vision" to welcome legitimate visitors while protecting U.S. borders.
The screen with a welcoming message was just a small part of a strategy to promote tourism while streamlining the entry process, they said.
"It hasn't had much of an impact," Dorgan said. "It's easy to announce initiatives. It's much harder to make them work. That's been the case with Homeland Security."
Rice and Chertoff announced that Dulles Airport and Houston's George Bush Intercontinental Airport would serve as model airports, with instructional videos that help explain the entry process and Customs and Border Protection officers screening visitors better and faster.
But the instructional video hasn't been produced, and there are still shortages of CBP staff, the Travel Industry Association said.
At a meeting of travel executives, Homeland Security Deputy Secretary Michael Jackson said the two departments were studying the results of the model airport program. "We could do just a little better job of this," Jackson said.
There have been some successes. Rice and Chertoff promised to speed visa processing for businesspeople, students and academics. In the 2006 budget year, a record number of student visas were issued — 6 percent more than in the year leading up to the Sept. 11 attacks. The State Department also issued more business visas — 12 percent more in 2006 than the year before.
"It's early days," Porter said. "It's been 12 months in a journey that's trying to overcome probably the worst attack on American soil."
Travel executives are asking for more airport and consular staff; a visa system that uses new technology; more model airports; and a campaign to promote the U.S. as a welcoming place to visit.