America wants your business

Dow: Looking to welcome more Middle Eastern travellers in 2007

Despite more airlines laun-ching direct flights to the United States, it isn’t getting any easier to get into the country.

SHALU CHANDRAN asks Roger Dow, president and CEO, Travel Industry Association of America (TIA), just why anyone would want to visit. Excerpts:

Entry rocesses to the US have always been very difficult, and research has shown it to be the world’s worst. Why do you think this is so?
There is no doubt that after September 11 it has become increasingly difficult not just for foreign visitors but also American travellers to gain entry into the US. Many of the restrictions were needed, others caused unintended delays and hassles. Many improvements have been made over the years, but perceptions changes take time to catch up with reality. We do have a challenge of not enough customs and border protection service, and the Discover America partnership has asked Congress to provide 200 additional officers for the airports that accept inbound trav-ellers. One of the major challenges is in the staffing level. There is also the belief in the travel industry that security and welcoming somebody in a hospitable manner are mutually exclusive. So, we need to get the right people and the right training in place to get the process in place.

Arab travellers are known to be the highest spenders, but visa regulations for them have always been difficult? What is being done to welcome them to the US?
We are addressing it on several levels, and again it goes back to the ability for the people to get a visa, and we have to use 21st century technology, have plenty of people in visa offices and train them. Secondly, the travel industry, with the Discover America partnership, is high-lighting at every level of government the importance of tourists, especially from the Middle East. Americans travelling is probably the most important thing, this will bridge and build relationships and acceptance of various cultures.

So there’s been a drop in inbound travel to the US?
Our number of overseas travellers since 2000 are down 17 per cent and that is alarming because travellers around the world have increased substantially in the past five years. For 2007, we are projecting 53 million international visitors, though a lot of the increase looks like it will be will be from Canada and Mexico and not much from overseas travellers. From the Middle East, we know that growth will be slow.

What loss of revenue does that translate into?
In the past five years, we estimate that is about 60 million travellers worldwide and over $90 billion in losses to the US economy. It represents a further loss of about 200,000 US jobs across the industry. So people in the hotels, the transportation systems are suffering.

Has it affected tourism infrastructure within the US?
One of the challenges we face in getting people to understand the gravity of the situation, is that the US domestic market – travel within the US and travel in the North American travel market, from Canada and Mexico – has been increasing steadily. So it’s not having a big impact on the development of hotels. That said, if we’d those 60 million travellers, there would be many more hotels, restaurants and other facilities today.

What tips would you give to travellers who have to deal with customs in the US?
The first thing is not to be intimidated by the process. What people hear is far from reality. The perception is that its much more difficult than it really is. This is not to minimize the stories of people who have been delayed. But it is important to understand the process, have all your documents ready and just approach in a casual manner!

What is TIA doing for the Middle East?
TIA is not singling out a particular region. The challenge that you talk about for the Middle East is also a challenge for people from the UK, France and Germany. So we are doing everything we can to increase staffing and training and understanding the value of these global travellers, not only to our economy but for public diplomacy as a whole. If people find it too difficult to come to the US, they will go elsewhere and other countries are doing a great job of marketing. Turkey, Greece, Tunisia, Dubai, South Africa are all enjoying great travel from the Middle East. We are also asking the government for budgets in the range of $100 million to 200million to promote the US and help change perceptions.

So why would one want to visit the US?
If you look at what the US has to offer, when people go on vacation, there are several things they like to do. Shopping, dining, beaches, seek out entertainment – and when you think of the US, from New York to the Grand Canyon, it has all of those. There are probably more Middle Eastern restaurants in New York than in many cities in the Middle East.