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. 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 during the next three years. With a brief pause for the recession, the number of overseas visitors 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 dropped to 12 percent in 2005, and has remained stuck at that level ever since, according to the U.S. Travel Association.
Particularly prized by the travel business are so-called "long haul" tourists. Apparently, the farther they come, the more they spend. U.S. Travel says long-haul travelers globally are up 40 percent in the last 10 years; for the U.S., that figure is 1 percent.
The travel trade group estimates that over the decade, the U.S. lost 460,000 travel-related jobs and $600 billion in tourist spending. And this is almost "found money," since the U.S. has a huge tourist infrastructure already in place.
Other countries have cut into our market share. The Washington Post cites China and Turkey -- and we have been less aggressive in courting foreign visitors.
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 has been shortened to a few weeks or less.
The fastest-growing sources of foreign tourists are China, up 47 percent from 2010 to 2011, and Brazil, up 36 percent in that time. As a result, the State Department added two consulates in Brazil and one in China and added more staff to handle visas.
More foreign tourism hits home, of course. Tourism is one of New York's most lucrative industries. Foreign travelers are drawn not just to New York City, but to the charm of the upstate region as well.
Increasing foreign tourism in the United States is common-sense economics. The campaign to bring visitors here should not be allowed to lapse, as it did before.
Besides, we need the money.
-- The Canandaigua Daily Messenger