Story Highlights• Industry notes steep decline in overseas travel to U.S.
• Industry says decline resulted in billions in lost revenue
• Immigration expert says industry is "motivated by greed"
From Jeanne Meserve and Mike M. Ahlers
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WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Travel industry leaders meeting in Washington Wednesday said they want the U.S. government to stop treating tourists like terrorists, and to take steps to reverse a steep decline in overseas travel to the United States that followed the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
Overseas travel to the United States has plummeted 17 percent in the past five years, travel industry officials say. And while a recent surge in travelers from Mexico and Canada has helped the industry rebound, it masks a precipitous and painful drop in travel originating in other countries.
The U.S. share of international travel has dropped from 9 percent to 6 percent, the group says.
The travel industry blames the U.S. government for under-staffing border posts, which they say is contributing to widespread perceptions overseas that the United States is hostile to foreigners.
"International travelers will tell you that they find that they are treated like criminals, that they are barked at by U.S. officials," said Geoffrey Freeman of the Discover America Partnership. "They simply feel unwelcome and that is leading them to choose other countries."
The travel decline is also hurting the United States' reputation, and the good will travel can engender, the group said.
The partnership is supported by a number of major players in the U.S. tourism and travel industry, including the Travel Industry Association, InterContinental Hotels, Marriott International and Disney.
According to the partnership members, the decline in overseas travel to the United States comes at a time when the travel business is burgeoning internationally. But travelers are choosing to go elsewhere.
Decline hurting economy, industry group says
Of the 25 countries that were the largest source of visitors to the United States in 2000, 17 sent fewer visitors in 2005, industry officials say. Japan -- the United States' third largest source of visitors after Canada and Mexico -- sent 5.1 million travelers to the country in 2000, but only 3.9 million in 2005. Germany sent 1.8 million in 2000, and only 1.4 million in 2005.
The decline is hurting the U.S. economy, the group said. Travelers from Canada and Mexico typically don't spend as much as people flying in from overseas, the group said.
Had U.S. travel remained on course, it would have resulted in $94 billion in economic gains, some 200,000 newly created jobs, and $16 billion in tax revenue, said Freeman.
U.S. State Department and Homeland Security officials say the industry is failing to consider recent gains made to speed up the issuance of visas and modernize technology at international ports of entry.
The State Department says it has significantly reduced wait times for visas in India, and is working to do the same in Brazil, where people wait from 11 to 79 days for a visa interview.
The travel industry coalition says that, contrary to popular belief, U.S. foreign policy is not a significant factor in the decline of travel to the United States.
"In fact, the evidence strongly demonstrates otherwise," the report says. A 2006 survey of travel agents showed that "their clients were far more focused on entry policies" than on foreign policy, it says.
The group attributes the decline to increased competition, underfunded border checkpoints that create backups, and a perception that the United States does not welcome visitors.
"Our national reputation has suffered as a direct result of policies and perceptions that discourage travel to the U.S.," the group says.
Security concerns raised
The group says the solution is to modernize the visa application process and ports of entry to expedite the process, and to get the word out that America welcomes visitors.
The group also wants to expand the visa waiver program, which allows visitors from 27 mostly European countries to enter the United States for limited stays without a visa. Currently, about two-thirds of overseas air travel to the United States is from visa waiver countries.
But a July 2006 government report noted "weaknesses" in the program, and some security experts have called for abolishing it.
The travel industry's recommendation is "motivated by greed," said Michael Cutler, a former INS inspector now with the Center for Immigration Studies. Travelers who get visas are twice scrutinized by the U.S. government -- first when they are interviewed for the visa, and again at the border, Cutler said. But travelers from visa waiver countries are scrutinized only when they arrive at the border.
The 2006 Government Accountability Office notes that terrorists can exploit the system by recruiting terrorists in visa waiver countries. Shoe bomber Richard Reid came from Britain, a visa waiver country.
Cutler said the travel industry is being "very short-sighted" in advocating expansion of the visa waiver program.
"If, God forbid, there's another terrorist attack ... travel to our country would come to a standstill. And then, I believe, they would find themselves in a much worse position."
Local travel officials contacted by CNN say business is matching, or even exceeding, pre-September 11, 2001 levels. New York City and Orlando both reported surpassing pre-September 11, 2001 figures.
But national tourism officials say domestic travel, as well as a huge influx of legal Mexican travel business, is masking the truth. The positive balance of trade generated by inbound travel has declined 72 percent over the past decade -- from $26.3 billion in 1996 to $7.4 billion in 2005, officials say. Through modernization, the country can both increase travel and increase security, it contends.
"The solution is, Congress has got to appropriate more money to spend to staff the consular offices (overseas) and to staff the immigration offices here in the United States," said J.W. Marriott Jr., chief of Marriott International.
International travel benefits the country by improving its image, he said. "The overall image of this country abroad is extremely important to this nation in every respect. People feel good about this country; when they come they feel a lot better."
"We've got to get them coming back," he said.