Several senators are now trying to get the government involved in bringing those visitors back.
The Senate Commerce Committee has approved a bill to establish a nonprofit public-private corporation to promote the United States as a tourist destination and clear up misperceptions about U.S. travel policies. It also would create a new office in the Commerce Department to work with other agencies on fixing visa policies and entry processes that discourage visits.
Visits to the United States from countries outside of Canada and Mexico totaled 21.7 million in 2006, down 17 percent from a peak of 26 million in 2000, according to Commerce Department figures. In the same period, cross-border travel around the world was up 20 percent.
"The global pie of international travel is steadily increasing, while the U.S. share has been slowly decreasing," said Roger Dow, president and CEO of the Travel Industry Association.
Visits from the six countries that provide the most tourists — Britain, Japan, Germany, France, South Korea and Australia — have dropped 15 percent since 2000 while travel from those six to other countries was up a robust 39 percent. There were 4.2 million arrivals from Britain, last year, down 11 percent from 2000, and 3.7 million visits from Japan, down 27 percent.
"It's a situation that really is disastrous when you take into account the overall global trends in international travel, and the fact that the U.S. currency makes travel to the country so attractive," said Adam Sacks, managing director for tourism economics at Oxford Economics. The weakening of the dollar against the euro and other currencies makes the money of foreign tourists go further.
Oxford Economics, in a recent analysis of travel policies written with former Homeland Security Department Secretary Tom Ridge, said the 17 percent drop in visits since 2000 has cost the United States $100 billion in lost visitor spending, almost 200,000 jobs and $16 billion in lost tax receipts.
It noted that the United States is the only global destination without an ongoing program to promote itself. Greece spends $150 million a year, Australia $113 million and Britain $90 million.
"We have lacked a coordinated program to promote travel to our country," said Sen. Byron Dorgan, D-N.D., one of the sponsors of the Senate bill.
The new corporation envisioned by the bill would be funded by industry contributions and a $10 user fee levied on travelers from the 27 countries participating in a visa waiver program with the United States.
But industry experts also stressed that increased advertising about the wonders of Broadway or the Grand Canyon must be accompanied by changes in the visa and entry systems that keep people away.
Geoff Freeman, executive director of the Discover America Partnership, a business group working to improve the U.S. image, said 70 percent of foreign visitors have a great experience once they get beyond the airport. At a time when many in the world have negative feelings about the United States, 74 percent return from visits with favorable views.
"Unfortunately the first three hours" — trying to get through customs — "is creating a poor impression and becoming a great barrier to coming," Freeman said. European papers are "filled with horror stories about why you don't want to come to the U.S."
Entry problems are hardly confined to tourists. Investors from countries such as Brazil or India, where it can take months to get a visa, may take their business elsewhere. People willing to pay considerable amounts to study in the United States or receive medical treatment here may consider other options.
The Oxford study recommended that the United States expand the visa waiver program and apply the proposed $10 visa waiver fee to both promotion and entry security improvements including hiring more border and customs officers.
It said such steps could increase overseas travel to this country by nearly 1.6 million visitors a year, and yield $8 billion in new visitor spending and $850 million in federal tax revenue.
The bill is S. 1661.