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Tourism rises globally, but not to U.S.

With a weak dollar, America is a great buy for foreigners, yet visits are falling.

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Organizers of the annual international consumer electronics show in Las Vegas cite several reasons for thousands of lost visitors: an arduous visa process for potential show attendees, a perception of an unwelcoming America, and high-profile campaigns to draw visitors by countries with rival electronics shows. The result is lower sales for the mostly US electronics companies that make up the Las Vegas show. "We had 28,000 international visitors to the show this year [in January], but that number is easily off by several thousand from China alone because of our government's efforts to control the flow of visitors," says Gary Shapiro, president of the Consumer Electronics Association in Arlington, Va.

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The foreign-visitor issue, he says, is one element of a "three-part problem" that also includes the high hurdles required of foreign students seeking to study in the US and restrictions on the entry of highly skilled workers. "It's a huge issue for our nation," he says.

On a recent trip to China, Mr. Shapiro met the owner of a chain of 1,200 electronics stores who said he'd love to visit the Las Vegas show – but can't get a visa. While Shapiro may not know why that particular visa request was denied, he does know about the process a Chinese businessperson, tourist, or student has to go through to get a visa.

As he describes it, the applicant must first get to the US Embassy or a city with a US consulate, wait in what can be a long line, and pay a $100 application fee, giving a full accounting of all financial assets. The applicant must then return to the embassy or consulate for a two-minute interview that results in approval for a visa or rejection.

"Meanwhile this person, who is wondering why he is putting himself through that, is hearing from the competition in Germany, 'Come to Germany!' " adds Shapiro, noting that Berlin holds a rival consumer electronics show.

The US government has gotten the message to some extent, working with foreign governments to extend visa-waiver programs to more countries and spending millions of dollars on programs to improve the reception of foreign visitors at key arrival airports. In April, the State Department and the Department of Homeland Security announced the expansion of the 2006 Model Ports Initiative to 18 additional airports: The goal is to streamline and make more pleasant the arrival process for foreign visitors.

But the US still does not have a campaign to promote American travel to foreigners, the only developed country not to have one. "As a country we've had this ... arrogance that people will struggle to get here, while other countries have to promote themselves," Shapiro says.

Congress seems convinced that this must change. More than 40 senators and 200 House members are cosponsoring a "travel promotion act" that would create a $200 million program – similar to what other developed countries already have. It would communicate US security and entry policies to foreigners while promoting the US as a travel destination.

The program would not require US tax dollars but would be a public-private partnership financed in part by a new fee on foreigners entering the US from visa-waiver countries and in part by the travel industry.

Still, promoters of the new program say Americans should understand the role they play in improving the climate for foreign visitors.

"People hear about rude treatment getting in here, and there can be some truth to that," says Dow of the TIA. But he also cites surveys showing that three-quarters of foreign visitors go home "feeling very good about America and Americans," he says. "If we had 10 million more people going home somewhere and saying, 'You know, they are pretty darn nice people,' " he adds, "it's pretty good public diplomacy."

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