Treat them right or lose them, says study

Millions around the world have seen San Francisco in the movies and want to see the real thing

A new global study conducted by the Discover America Partnership confirms a commonly held belief about tourism to the US: that entry processes have created a climate of fear and frustration that is both turning away business and leisure travellers and damaging America’s image abroad.

However, minor improvements in welcoming travellers could yield substantial diplomatic and economic gains, says the study, which was carried out by independent polling firm RT Strategies and based upon a survey of more than 2,000 travellers worldwide. It sought to gauge traveller perceptions of the US visa and entry process, and how opinions of America differ among those that have and have not visited the US. The study revealed that, by deterring visitors, the US is missing an enormous economic and diplomatic opportunity. Those that have visited the US and interacted with the American people are 74 per cent more likely to have an extremely favourable opinion of the country.
“This study should be a wake-up call for the US government,” said Geoff Freeman, executive director of the Discover America Partnership. “Visiting the United States and interacting with the American people can have a powerful, positive effect on how non-US residents see our country. Unfortunately, perceptions of a ‘rude’ and ‘arrogant’ entry process are turning away travellers and harming America’s image.”
The issue is of particular relevance here in the Middle East, where travellers holding valid student visas have allegedly been refused entry.
Amazingly, in every destination criteria but the point of entry experience, international travellers rank America in the top three – travellers, the study found, want to visit the US, and are willing to wait an average of 46.5 days to get a visa – 15 days beyond US State Department standards, but far less than current wait times in many countries.
Among the study’s key findings:
• The US entry process is considered the ‘world’s worst’ by travellers – and it was doubly as bad as the next-worst destination area.
• 54 per cent of international travellers say that immigration officials are rude.
• Travellers to the US are more afraid of US government officials than the threat of terrorism or crime.
• Two-thirds of travellers surveyed fear they will be detained at the border because of a simple mistake or misstatement.
• The US ranks with Africa and the Middle East when it comes to traveller-friendly paperwork and officials.
• By deterring visitors, the US is missing an enormous diplomatic and economic opportunity.
• Those with experience visiting America are 74 per cent more likely to have an extremely favourable opinion of the country versus those who have not visited recently.
• Negative attitudes about US treatment of visitors are having a much larger effect on keeping travellers away from the US than negative attitudes about US policies in the world.
• Nearly nine in 10 travellers tell their friends, relatives about their travel experiences most or all of the time.
• Minor changes in the US treatment of foreign business and leisure travellers would yield substantial gains
• Travellers’ expectations include clear communications, respect and courteous treatment.
“Foreign travellers are in agreement: the US entry process is unpredictable and unfriendly to foreign visitors, it is hurting America’s image abroad and deterring many from visiting the US,” said Thomas Riehle, partner, RT Strategies. “These survey results help to explain the 17 per cent decline in overseas travel to the US over the past five years and the 10 per cent decline in business travel to the US over the past year.”
The Discover America Partnership was launched in September 2006 by some of America’s foremost business leaders. These business leaders recognize travel to the US as an integral aspect of the public diplomacy process and have challenged the US to welcome an additional 10 million more visitors annually. This initiative is undertaking an aggressive, ongoing campaign to draw national attention to the issue, and to push for solutions.
The Partnership is pursuing a variety of initiatives to help the US better compete for international travellers. These include a detailed assessment of the US entry process, and how the nation balances security and economic prosperity.
The study will look at the impact of current point-of-entry policies on the US economy, and what officials can learn from other countries. It is an ongoing effort to tap into the travel industry’s expertise in hospitality to develop new, creative and better ways to welcome visitors to the country, besides studying how other countries compete for international travellers and how the US can demonstrate its commitment to welcoming more visitors.
The Discover America Partnership/RT Strategies study of international travellers was conducted between October 25 and November 9, 2006. 2,011 non-US resident international travellers were surveyed, representing more than 15 countries worldwide. Half of those travellers had visited the US since September 11, 2001; the other half had not visited since the same date.