LET’S AGAIN PUT OUT THE WELCOME MAT FOR TOURISTS (23)
Like you, I love and am proud of our country, and I would like to show it off to more people from around the world. In my view, doing this would strongly promote better relations between our country and the rest of the world, and would also give us some sizeable economic benefits.
Nowhere in the world is found more interesting or beautiful places than in our land. Cities like Boston, New York, Seattle, San Francisco and many in Southern California take a back seat to no other places in interest and beauty, and I would match the view in Yosemite Valley against any other in the world for overwhelming majesty and grandeur.
But according to our own Department of Commerce statistics, we are the only major country in the world today that is experiencing a decrease in tourism. That is true for two reasons. The first is our response to the threat of terrorism, and the second is our lack of organization and coordination in promoting tourism to our country.
Unfortunately, our preoccupation with the perceived threat of terrorism has kept our tourist alert stages consistently at orange – which is the second-highest level. And since the color-coded program was initiated after 9/11, it has never been dropped below stage yellow, which is an “elevated” rate. It is understandable that no bureaucrat wants to be the one who lets the next terrorists into our country, but there are much better ways of dealing with that problem.
As a result of these reasons, it now takes an average of 45 to 60 days almost anywhere in the world just for a potential tourist to process a visa application to travel to our country. Therefore, today many business and leisure travelers are simply unwilling to put up with what they view as the inconvenience and even indignity of high rejection rates, long lines, high fees and prolonged waits for the issuance of a visa.
And this is not just an Arab or Muslim issue. For example, the number of tourists from Japan fell from 5 million in 2000 to only 3.6 million in 2006. We even saw 10 percent fewer tourists coming here from Great Britain during the same period of time, and in many ways they are our closest allies. Furthermore, all of this is occurring in spite of the weakness of our dollar in comparison to the Japanese yen and the British pound.
Furthermore, when those tourists who do come here actually reach our shores, they are met with ridiculously long lines, delays, hassles and even humiliations while going through the Customs process at our airports. The worst of our airports in my experience is Miami, where there are days in which almost everyone misses their connecting flights because of the delays. This, of course, means further long lines to obtain new tickets, being forced to go through the screening process all over again, and additional significant delays in waiting for the next flight, if there is one. From a traveler’s standpoint, who needs it?
So it is hard for a Libertarian to say this, but what we really need is a new federal agency to promote tourism in the United States, and to streamline the admission process to our country. We are the only advanced country in the world that dies not have such an agency.
In fact, Jamaica is more organized and spends more money internationally promoting tourism to their country than we do to ours. This is silly, particularly where one considers that our 17 percent decrease in tourism since 9/11 has cost us $94 billion in lost tourist spending, about 200,000 jobs and $16 billion in lost tax revenues.
What should this new agency do in addition to promoting the wonderful tourist destinations in our country to people around the world? One thing would be to develop a new identification system at our ports of entry for frequent travelers. Another would be to encourage our airline industry to establish a low-cost stand-by fare for students and seniors – or for everybody for that matter. And it could also promote a system in which people in cities, as well as in more rural areas, could rent out their spare bedrooms to tourists for a few nights.
The term Bed and Breakfast has evolved into one that generally describes upper-end lodging with canopies over the beds and virtual gourmet breakfasts. But when I was younger I stayed in Germany and Austria in spare bedrooms with families that simply had posted signs saying “Zimmer Frei,” or room available, on the streets outside their homes. Then for a modest amount of money I had a clean and comfortable room, a good basic breakfast, and all the family I could enjoy. Bringing in an organized system like that would bring many diplomatic and economic blessings upon our great country.
Many people around the world have seen pictures of our country in movies, books, magazines, and on the Internet, and have developed an innate desire to see it for themselves. For example, Chinese tourism is exploding, and the Chinese government is close to completely lifting a ban on travel to the U.S. At this point it would make a great deal of sense for us to ease our entry restrictions for Chinese tourists as well.
Yes, the tourists will be anxious to visit Disneyland. But they will also want to spend their time and new wealth at places like Rodeo Drive, Fashion Island and South Coast Plaza. They want to purchase clothing and jewelry here because they are concerned about the fake products in Asia. And they also will be anxious to visit our smaller venues like the Newport Sports Museum or the Huntington Beach International Surfing Museum.
About 34 million Chinese traveled overseas in 2006, and that is projected to increase by 10 percent per year. But less than two percent of those Chinese tourists came to our country. This is particularly unsatisfactory since the word “America” in many Chinese dialects literally means “beautiful country.” Unfortunately, we are missing out for just about every reason imaginable.
So it is time for us to organize our tourist programs and to change those numbers. Yes there are risks that some people might overstay their visas or cause some other form of trouble. But those risks can be controlled and reduced with appropriate attention to them without closing off the beauty of our country to good, enthusiastic and increasingly wealthy tourists.
Today we have almost no organization or coordination in the area of international tourism, and we are paying the price. In fact we are so disorganized that our Departments of State and of Homeland Security recently promulgated a tourism video that mistakenly encouraged tourists to visit the Canadian side of the Niagara Falls. So who’s in charge here? Maybe no one. We can, and we must, do better than that.
(BTW: To those of my faith, I wish you a Merry Christmas. And for those of different beliefs, I wish you the true Spirit of Christmas. All of the world’s great religions, even including the atheistic Humanism, have the same values, which include a desire for peace among men and women, and a better, more meaningful and giving life for oneself and one’s children. In my view, those values are exemplified by the Spirit of Christmas. So go ahead, wish people you meet a Merry Christmas and Spirit of Christmas. It is okay, and if some people take offense, that is their problem. Merry Christmas!)
James P. Gray is a judge of the Orange County Superior Court, the composer of the high school musical “Americans All,” and can be contacted at JimPGray@sbcglobal.net or his blog site at JudgeJimGray.JudgeJimGray.com.