After 9/11, every would-be foreign tourist to the United States was treated as a potential terrorist. If Americans found airport security onerous and intrusive, foreigners found it even more so, and just getting that far required an enormous amount of paperwork. And the foreign arrival halls in most major airports were hardly the most welcoming venues for visitors.
Not surprisingly, the number of foreign visitors fell precipitately over the next three years. With a brief pause for the recession, the number of overseas visitors has increased steadily since 2004 to 27.9 million in 2011. (If you include our immediate neighbors, Canada and Mexico, the number is 62.7 million.)
But where once the United States was a destination for 17 percent of international travel worldwide, our share of that travel dropped to 12 percent in 2005 and has remained stuck at that level ever since, according to the U.S. Travel Association.
Mercifully for our reputation and our economy, that has begun to change. The Obama administration and the travel industry have launched a joint $150 million “Discover America” campaign of TV commercials, ads and Facebook pages overseas to attract visitors.
There are now 37 so-called “visa waiver” countries where all a potential visitor needs is a machine-readable passport and advance notice to a U.S. embassy or consulate. A process that could take months after 9/11 now has been shortened to a few weeks or less.
Increasing foreign tourism in the United States is only common-sense economics. The campaign to bring visitors here should not be allowed to lapse, as has happened in the past. Besides, we need the money.
Dale McFeatters writes for the Scripps Howard News Service.