A cheaper America doesn't make it a 'must see'

Fears about security hassles and poor image keep foreign tourists away.

When Alison Fisher and Chris Whitehouse stepped off their London-New York flight two weeks ago, they were delighted to find that the money in their pockets stretched a whole lot further than two years ago.

The British couple had considered Australia but found the United States cheaper. "It certainly helped looking at exchange rates before we came out, figuring out how far our money would go with hotels and food and everything," says Mr. Whitehouse, who had just toured Boston and the Charles River on an amphibious vehicle. But the couple's tour was full of American - not foreign - tourists.

At the start of what should be a booming summer season, with the entire country virtually on sale because of the falling value of the dollar, an international pall has settled over the US travel industry. More foreign tourists are coming to the US but not in the numbers expected. The problem is not economic, but political, travel and international-relations experts agree. A poor US image abroad, coupled with overblown concerns about visa and security hassles, is keeping international visitors away.

That's why the travel industry is redoubling its efforts to brand the US in a positive light - and use tourism as a means to ease international tensions.

"We want to focus on being part of the solution," says Rick Webster, director of government affairs for the Travel Industry Association (TIA) of America in Washington, D.C. "If there's concern on the part of a potential visitor that the rules [of entry] are too constraining or difficult, that only worsens the image of the US - and there's a number of reasons why that image is suffering, whether it's concern about the Iraq war and other international engagements by the US."

To be sure, the favorable economics are beginning to help the industry recapture international tourists after its post-9/11 slump. Last year, the number of visitors to the US rose to 46.1 million people - a 12 percent increase since 2003 - and is expected to rise again this year, the TIA says. That rise in foreign tourism coincides with a slump in the dollar, which has fallen 13 percent against the euro and 11 percent against the yen in two years.

Nor can all the US travel industry's woes be blamed on the geopolitics of a post-9/11 world: The US has been losing market share of international tourism since 1992, as other nations have bulked up their marketing, according to the travel industry.

Nevertheless, the travel association says that tourism would be stronger if America's image were better. "We do believe the weak dollar is masking some of the problems out there," Mr. Webster says.

Part of the problem is procedural. Rumors about travel to the US include the belief that foreigners are frequently hassled, detained, or left waiting in line for hours at the immigration desk. Isolated incidents have created a wider perception problem that doesn't mirror reality, the TIA and federal government argue.

"We are a welcoming nation," says Leah Yoon, a spokeswoman for US Customs and Border Protection. The agency, part of the Department of Homeland Security, says it is working on its 2004 pledge to better serve travelers.

The TIA argues the US government can do more. It frets about the stipulation that those travelers who don't need a US visa must have passports encrypted with finger and facial recognition technology starting Oct. 26. The TIA warns that the requirement may sway millions to choose alternate vacation spots.

More worrisome is the political image of the US, particularly in Europe. "In Europe, disaffection with the United States runs deep," says Charles Kupchan, director of European studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. "Over the last year, evidence has come out that Europeans are avoiding American brands."

In two surveys of 8,000 consumers in Europe, Russia, Japan, and Canada, a fifth of respondents consciously boycotted American goods because of its foreign policy, according to GMI, an independent data-research agency based in Seattle.

One bright spot: When the TIA analyzed three recent GMI surveys, it found that foreign citizens who had visited the US tended to have a more positive perception of the country than those who haven't. To that end, the TIA recently spent $6 million allocated by Congress on a "See America" campaign that targets Britain. Keen to obtain more taxpayer funding, the trade group is also pushing tourism as a balm to international tensions.

"Travel and tourism, by its very nature, is people contact," says Dexter Koehl, a TIA spokesman. "That's an area we felt we could play an important role, frankly, in improving the prospects of peace."

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