U.S. travel executives - including those who run Disneyland and Walt Disney World - say President Bush's war on terror is unintentionally scaring off foreign tourists and that an international campaign is needed to lure more visitors and repair the country's soured image.
"It's more than just an image decline," said Jay Rasulo, president of Walt Disney Parks & Resorts, a Lake Buena Vista, Fla.-based unit of The Walt Disney Co. "I think other countries are out there competing for tourists and we have not been."
Rasulo and other travel executives said tourism to the United States, while rising again after several down years, is not as robust as it should be, with an estimated 10 percent fewer international visitors in 2004 than in 2000. Although the weak dollar has brought more visitors in recent months, the overall trend is still disappointing to the industry.
The stakes involved are huge. Visitors from abroad accounted for about $93.5 billion in spending and economic activity in the United States in 2004, according to Commerce Department estimates. That's slightly larger than U.S. exports of automobiles, engines and parts.
Tourism officials ascribe the decline partly to anti-Americanism that arose after the country launched military action in Afghanistan and Iraq and to the "hassle factor" associated with new visa application and airport security procedures.
Homeland Security Department spokesman Dennis Murphy said the new procedures are intended to correct vulnerabilities exploited by the Sept. 11 terrorists, without impeding trade or travel. "We can't allow our system to be abused again," he said.
"Because the system was not enforced rigorously in the past, any change to enforcement postures become significant changes in the minds of people who used it before," he added.
Tourism officials emphasized that they aren't opposed to the Bush administration's homeland security objectives; what concerns them is the manner in which policies are implemented.
"We have developed an image in many countries as fortress America," said Betsy O'Rourke, senior vice president for marketing at the Travel Industry Association of America, a Washington-based trade group. O'Rourke said tourists should be greeted as "customers," not potential "invaders."
Alan Chick of Brighton, England, has traveled to the United States once a year, on average, for the past 18 years and said that while there is some truth to the perceived hassle factor, the problem has been vastly overblown and shouldn't deter foreign tourists.
"Unfortunately, the Americans don't do very much to dispel these things," said Chick. "They don't really do anything to say 'Hey, it's really not that bad."'
The commission that investigated the Sept. 11 attacks said the nation's beefed-up border screening system needs to become more efficient and friendly, and it noted that visa applications in 2003 were down 32 percent compared with 2001. "There is evidence that the present system is disrupting travel to the United States," the commission said.
Meanwhile, a November poll of 8,000 consumers from eight industrialized nations found that 55 percent of respondents had an increasingly negative perception of that United States, according to Seattle-based market research firm GMI Inc.
That rankles some travel officials.
"I refuse to believe that our declining image is a fair portrayal of who we really are," Amtrak vice president Barbara Richardson said last month at an industry luncheon in Washington.
The image problem aside, the U.S. tourism industry is already losing global market share as borders in many parts of the world have become easier and cheaper to cross, and as countries from Spain to Singapore outspend the United States in tourism marketing and advertising.
"I don't know if it's naivete or arrogance that we feel people know the U.S. so well that we don't need to invite them," said Marilyn Carlson Nelson, CEO of Carlson Companies Inc., the Minnetonka, Minn.-based owner of travel agencies, hotels and restaurants.
Either way, Nelson said it is critical for the U.S. government to market its national parks and other attractions more forcefully, lest it concede more tourism business to other countries and allow "the perception that foreigners might not be welcome" to fester.
Thirty-nine state governments spent about $20 million in 2003 on international advertising and other promotions, according to a nationwide survey. This was down 11 percent from the year before, but still more than twice as much as the federal government has allocated for 2005.
Officials likened the U.S. tourism industry's woes to the recent experience of American universities, which have seen declining applications from foreign graduate students since 2001. Education officials attribute the drop-off to the same three factors cited by travel executives: tighter U.S. immigration policies, negative attitudes toward the United States and increasing competition from other countries.
Angela Aggeler, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Bureau of Consular Affairs, a division of the State Department, said the agency has added staffing and improved technology at consulates around the world in order to streamline visa-application procedures and make one message clear: "The welcome mat is out."
She conceded that requiring face-to-face interviews, digital fingerprints and other personal data as part of the visa application process may have sent the opposite message. "But how do you address those perceptions?" she said.
Disney's Rasulo said the U.S. government needs to spend more money on marketing and advertising. "If the source of that image is the nightly news, I don't think that paints a particularly good picture of the United States as a tourist destination," he said.
The Commerce Department spends $10 million a year to promote America by using clips from famous movies, but Rasulo said that is a minuscule sum compared with other countries. For example, Australia spends about $250 million a year marketing itself as a tourist destination, while Spain spends more than $70 million.
While international arrivals rose an estimated 12 percent in 2004, compared with 2003, and spending climbed an estimated 17 percent, officials largely attributed that to the improving global economy and the declining value of the dollar, which has made it cheaper to visit America. (Disney reported in its latest quarterly earnings that operating income at the company's theme parks increased 11 percent, boosted by an increase in attendance from international tourists.)
The number of international travelers visiting the United States in 2004 -- about 45 million -- was about the same a decade earlier, though the country's overall piece of the international tourism market has dwindled by about 5 percent over the same period, according to industry estimates.
Between 2000 and 2003, the United States' worldwide share of travelers from Britain declined by 14 percent, from Germany 17 percent, from Japan 14 percent and from Brazil 28 percent, according to TIA data.
By Brad Foss