By The Hill Staff - 03/19/07 06:25 PM EDT
The hearings come in the wake of a lobbying campaign by the Discover America Partnership, a business coalition that includes several hotel chains, Walt Disney Parks and Resorts and the National Restaurant Association. The group, which has hired former Department of Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge as a consultant, argues the U.S. has lost 60 million visitors since Sept. 11, resulting in a loss of about $93 billion in economic activity.
“I want to do what is necessary to speed up [traveler processing] without sacrificing security to help us deal with tourism,” said Sen. Byron Dorgan (D-N.D.), who has scheduled a hearing on the issue today at his Senate Commerce Subcommittee on Interstate Commerce, Trade and Tourism. He said the U.S. “clearly” is not doing enough to promote tourism in the U.S.
Besides creating jobs, Dorgan said increased tourism could help U.S. diplomacy, since it is a way for the U.S. to reach out to the world and help people better understand the U.S. democracy.
Several administration officials will testify at today’s hearing, including the executive director of traveler security and facilitation for U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP), Robert Jacksta, and Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Visa Services Stephen Edson.
The Department of Commerce earlier this month said the U.S. hosted 51.1 million international travelers in 2006, an increase of 4 percent over 2005. Commerce also reported that those visitors spent a record $107.4 billion in travel receipts, including passenger fares.
Discover America officials, however, argue that the increase largely represents a spike in travelers from Mexico and Canada, who may be benefiting from a drop in the dollar’s value. They argue non-North American travelers to the U.S., who according to Commerce totaled 21.1 million in 2006, are still down significantly from the 25 million visiting the U.S. before Sept. 11.
“We should be approaching 30 million overseas visitors,” said Geoff Freeman, executive director for the group, who noted that before Sept. 11, Commerce was projecting that nearly 60 million travelers would visit the U.S. by 2003. He blamed a foreign press filled with horror stories about travelers being detained or strip-searched, and said the U.S. has not done enough to counter it.
Commerce projects that the number of foreign travelers to the U.S. will increase by 4 percent in 2007, and that this will include significant increases in travelers from Western European countries that could bring the U.S. up to pre-Sept. 11 levels.
Freeman, however, charged that there is little to no reason to believe such projections will become reality, chiefly because the U.S. has not done enough to promote itself as an inviting place for business travelers and tourists. He also criticized Commerce officials for promoting numbers highlighting increases in foreign visitors that mask the reality that overseas visitors have dropped. To ignore that drop in visitors while emphasizing the Canadian and Mexican travelers “is a foolish approach,” he said. Freeman will testify today at a hearing by the House Committee on Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on International Organizations, Human Rights and Oversight. Peter Gadiel, president of 9/11 Families for a Secure America, also has been asked to testify.
CBP Spokeswoman Kelly Klundt agreed CBP has an image problem in foreign countries because of perceptions that visitors are treated poorly when they enter the country.
Klundt, however, said the problem is of perception rather than reality, and outlined several steps the administration has taken to improve the entry of foreign tourists, students and business travelers.
For example, in a matter of weeks, the Department of Homeland Security will unveil its first “model port” at Houston’s airport. The intention of the project in Houston is to tackle the calls Discover America has made for improved efficiencies in processing as well as customer friendliness. For example, visitors will see a video aired in four languages upon their entry, guiding them through the entry process.
CBP also introduced a new Traveler Redress Injury Program (TRIP) several weeks ago intended to create a place to lodge complaints about visas or the U.S. entry system.
Discover America wants Congress to approve legislation authorizing money to promote foreign travel to the U.S., as well as changes that have been made to improve the entry system. It also is pressing Congress to approve the hiring of 250 additional CBP officers to work at inbound airports in order to speed the processing of international travelers to 30 minutes or less.
Finally, it calls for expanding both the number of countries participating in the visa-waiver program and the security information required for that program.
Discover America officials highlight several allies in Congress, including Dorgan, Senate Commerce Committee Chairman Daniel Inouye (D-Hawaii) and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.).