A Yawn of a Welcome

NEVER in America. That's what most citizens of the United States would like to think about the endless customs lines, red tape, and bureaucratic inefficiency that sometimes wear down world travelers. But tourists from abroad anxious to see the sights in New York, Los Angeles, and other popular points of entry are finding little but anxiety once they leave their 747s. The immigration and customs stations at airports around the country are too pinched in personnel and space to handle the thousands from Europe and Asia who want to take advantage of a cheap US dollar. Waits of two hours - and longer - are common in LA, New York, and Honolulu.

Mandatory screening of new arrivals by the Immigration and Naturalization Service causes the longest waits. A General Accounting Office study found that immigration officers had too little space to do their work at 12 of 13 airports examined. The staffs are perpetually short. Few people clamor for the posts, since they can pay less than a hamburger flipper's job at a McDonald's or Burger King.

The tourism industry is aghast at all this. It has nightmares about German and Japanese travelers spreading stories back home that the US just isn't worth the frustration.

And think what that could do to the balance of trade! Tourist dollars substantially help narrow the gap between what flows out of the country and what flows in.

The Bush administration wants to charge visitors from Canada, Mexico, and the Caribbean the same $5 fee levied on tourists from elsewhere to raise $80 million or so for 450 new immigration inspectors. That's just a beginning, but it could help.

Meanwhile, Americans might want to go out of their way to be friendly to the foreign tourists who happen through town. The ordeal back at the airport, after all, was hardly in the best tradition of US hospitality.

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