Promoters from 64 countries vied this week to lure big-spending Arab tourists to their countries at the Middle East's largest tourism convention.
But not a single promoter from the United States turned up.
Instead, the U.S. government sent officials from the Department of Homeland Security to demonstrate its mandatory fingerprinting of Arab and other foreign visitors. The only other U.S. presence inside the Americas hall at the show came from a tiny boutique hotel in New York.
"It's bizarre," said Sarah Wood, promoting Canada's Ontario and Niagara Falls at a nearby booth. "People ask us where the U.S. booth is and we point them to the Homeland Security booth."
A pair of U.S. Homeland Security officials at the show did their best to give details on America's tourist sights, such as the Grand Canyon and Las Vegas, while explaining that being fingerprinted by U.S. immigration officials doesn't mean a person should feel like a criminal.
"We tell them, 'We want you to come to the United States,"' said DHS spokeswoman Kimberly Weissman. "They ask us about destinations and we give them our personal anecdotes."
The United States used to send small delegations to the show — the Arabian Travel Market — but those dried up after the Sept. 11 attacks, organizers said. Show chairman Tom Nutley has said American operators no longer see Arab tourists as a viable market. Tightened U.S. visa restrictions on Arabs have also kept many tourists away.
Visitors at the show said the lack of U.S. promoters gives the impression that Arabs are no longer welcome in America.
"Maybe they don't want Arabs to visit," said Hussein bin Mutlaq, 52, a retired Emirates army officer. Bin Mutlaq said it was ironic that the Gulf militaries and governments have such close relations with Washington but that individual visits have become so difficult. Two Emiratis were among the 19 Sept. 11 hijackers. Fifteen came from neighboring Saudi Arabia.
Another visitor, who declined to give his name, said he wanted to visit America but was put off when he was told that his uncle was strip-searched three times.
The World Tourism Organization said Arab tourists from the Gulf states spent more than $12 billion on foreign vacations in 2005. Figures for 2006 were not immediately available.
The American absence was an opportunity for others.
A Kuwaiti tour operator, Thomas Sam, said he booked 1,000 nights of hotel stays for clients traveling to Australia, Europe and Asia. Morocco's Go Holiday tour operator reported 30 major agreements to handle package tours from Kuwait, Tunisia, Bahrain, Indonesia and Syria. An Emirati operator, Hassan al-Sabbagh said he'd set up new package vacations in Cyprus because of increasing Arab demand.
New York City's absence at the convention was especially perplexing, as Emirates airlines flies three daily direct flights to New York, and Etihad airlines operates another daily direct New York flight from the Emirates capital Abu Dhabi.
U.S. carrier Delta Airlines operated a small booth at the convention, offering special fares on its five weekly flights between Dubai and Atlanta, starting May 31. Qatar Airways announced it would begin nonstop flights from Doha to Washington this summer and would begin service to New York via Geneva in June.
But even in the absence of U.S. promoters, Arab affinity toward American culture was evident.
Elvis Presley and Marilyn Monroe impersonators posed for photographs at the floor show, while American-style cheerleaders performed in front of the Qatar pavilion.
American companies investing in the Arab world, such as American Express and Hertz attended the show.
Two major U.S. theme parks announced they would open franchises in Dubai. Universal Studios, which operates theme parks in Florida, California and Japan, said it would build a $2.2 billion amusement park inside the gargantuan Dubailand amusement zone. Nickelodeon Recreation announced Thursday that it would also open a theme park by 2011 in Dubailand.
But no U.S. theme parks — not even Universal Studios — sent envoys to attract Arab visitors to America.
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