By the US tourism industry’s own admission, it is finding it increasingly hard to attracting foreign holidaymakers.
The perception that the country has a tough entry policy is dissuading customers from traditional markets, causing a drop in its market share of international tourism from 7.5% in 2000 to 6.1% last year.
However, with paranoia about border security seeming to dominate US policy, a pilot scheme to be introduced towards the end of the year will see each visitor to the country have all 10 fingerprints digitally scanned on their arrival – an additional measure that can only lengthen the process of clearing customs.
US Department of Homeland Security US-Visit director Robert Mocny said: “The increased finger-printing may appear Big Brother-ish if we don’t explain it properly.
“But if you agree biometrics are a security advance for international travel you’ll want to make sure you’re doing it the best way possible.
“When a system has 10 fingerprints it says more and it should improve the system. It is another step on a long journey of trying to make travel to the US more secure.”
US authorities are keen to get the message out that increased security will not necessarily mean additional problems when clearing immigration – a job that the Discover America Partnership is tackling.
Walt Disney Parks and Resorts chairman and US Travel Industry Association chairman James Rasulo said: “The Partnership was set up to debunk the myth that security and efficiency can’t live together – we firmly believe they can.”
However, he added issues other than US security demands have led to the current problems at US borders that are being blamed for the drop in tourism figures.
Rasulo said: “At most points of entry they are understaffed, we are aggressively campaigning to get that changed and we’ve made some progress.”
Discover America Partnership executive director Geoff Freeman said the US Congress recently passed a number of measures that will see more countries added to the US Visa Waiver list.
More importantly from the UK perspective, it will also see the recruitment of an additional 200 border control officers and the creation of a simplified entry processes.
Walt Disney Parks and Resorts has been drafted in to advise immigration officials on how best to welcome visitors and manage large queues – addressing two long-held gripes of tourists.
Rasulo said: “These efforts will result in a friendly and more welcoming experience for visitors and we expect it to attract more people. But negative perceptions have a way of lingering long after the problem has gone.”
One way of countering this – a $200 million worldwide marketing campaign – has long been on the table and was once again raised as a possibility at last week’s International Pow Wow in Anaheim.
However, with the US government driving the project, it could be as long as a decade before the campaign launches.
Rasulo said: “We’d need to think of what kind of agency would be set up to administer it as well as the make up of the board.”
In the meantime the TIA is calling on US agents to support a suggestion that would raise $300 million through a tax on visitors to pay, among other things, for the training of immigration officials to make them more customer friendly.
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