Be safe, but don't roll up the US welcome mat

The recent establishment of the United States Department of Commerce Travel and Tourism Promotion Advisory Board is good news for the travel industry and the country.

Earlier this year, Congress appropriated $50 million to implement a comprehensive marketing campaign to encourage international travelers to visit the United States. This travel board will make recommendations to the Secretary of Commerce on the implementation of advertising and promotional campaigns.

But it is ironic that at the same time that the government has committed dollars to market the US, other parts of the federal government are making it more difficult for people to arrive on our shores for business or leisure. Passports must soon be machine-readable, and for some visitors, tourist visas can be applied for only in person. Perhaps the US will begin running travel ads that declare "Visit Fortress America - We Might Eventually Let You In."

The world, of course, is a different place since Sept. 11. The tireless efforts of the State Department, Department of Homeland Security, Congress, and othersto prevent terrorists from crossing our borders are needed.Indeed, the security ofour nation should be the highest priority.

But Sept. 11 has affected the economy as well - the travel and tourism industry, in particular. Nearly half of all US jobs lost since the terrorist attacks have been in aviation and travel.

One reason for this is the dramatic drop in international visitors. The US welcomed 12 percent fewer overseas visitors in 2001, losing nearly $12 billion in tourist dollars. And now the US ranks third on the list of most visited destinations - behind France and Spain. This drop-off hurts not only travel and tourism companies, but also the 1 out of every 7 people in the private-sector workforce who earns a living in the industry.

In 2001, travel and tourism was responsible for an $8.6 billion positive balance of trade, one of very few industries contributing a multibillion dollar surplus. The industry, however, brought in nearly $18 billion less than in 1996.

At a time when the US has historically high trade deficits and is trying to fund the war on terrorism, this trend needs to be reversed.

Across the nation, more than 40 states and hundreds of cities are facing historic budget deficits. The shortfall in revenue to cities is so significant that the US Conference of Mayors has formed a travel-and-tourism task force. And this past April, the US Chamber of Commerce partnered with the Travel Business Roundtable for a high-level conference to discuss ways to reignite growth in travel both to and within the US.

Encouraging international travelers can significantly improve the outlook. Simply put, international visitors stay longer and spend more. In New York City, for example, international visitors historically have accounted for only 18 percent of all visitors but generated 42 percent of all visitor spending.

This is why the State Department's plan to rapidly implement the policy changes is so troubling. (The deadline for all international passports to be machine readable has been moved up from Oct. 1, 2007 to Oct. 1, 2003.)

As the Bush administration has stated over and over again, it is imperative that security needs be met without threatening the flow of commerce. The State Department should allow more time to implement these changes to ensure that foreign visitors are fully aware of new procedures and have correct paperwork in hand to prevent lengthy delays.

The US literally can't afford to send yet another signal to the world that foreign travelers aren't welcome. At a time when we need to better define America abroad - and now that we finally have the resources to do so - we should be rolling out the welcome mat, breaking down barriers, eradicating prejudices, and promoting a greater understanding among peoples.

Let's hope the State Department acts more prudently, and that sufficient federal funds are appropriated for increased security staffing and state-of-the art technology to protect the US from would-be terrorists - in the manner that is the least disruptive to the traveling public.

And then the advisory board and Madison Avenuewill feel free to come up with a more inviting travel slogan.

Jonathan Tisch is chairman and CEO of Loews Hotels and chairman of the Travel Business Roundtable and NYC & Co., New York's official tourism-marketing organization.

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