By DAVID ARMSTRONG
San Francisco Chronicle
July 04, 2005
That is slowing the recovery of hotels, airlines and other businesses that are counting on a surge in commerce from the weak U.S. dollar.
What's more, industry executives say planned federal passport and visa rules and other measures intended to safeguard the nation are creating the perception of a Fortress America overseas, tarnishing this country's reputation for hospitality and personal freedom.
As a consequence, visa applications from foreign travelers have dropped by one-third from pre-Sept. 11 levels, and fewer foreign students are applying to U.S. schools. Moreover, travel agents report booking foreign travelers away from the United States, and airlines that serve overseas hot spots say business is down on their routes to the United States.
Even some casual visitors say they are coming to this country less often and leaving sooner, citing a hassle factor at U.S. borders and airports.
Norman Fong said his wife's sister, who lives in Canada, is treated with suspicion "whenever she comes to visit us because they believe she might overstay her visa. She is originally from Hong Kong, and her English is not perfect. She said here during her last brief visit, 'I don't want to come here too often because they always harass me at the airport.' She was so upset, she only stayed three days and returned to Canada. She was going to stay longer."
Washington officials counter that entering the United States is becoming easier and quicker for foreign tourists, business executives and academics and that the notion of a Fortress America is an aftereffect of the confusion and anxiety following the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.
After Sept. 11, Washington mandated the collection of more information about travelers to confirm their identities and necessarily subjected travelers to closer scrutiny, said Janice Jacobs, assistant secretary of state for visa service. Consequently, some people were delayed or barred from the United States, sometimes without understanding why.
Entering the country is much easier now, Jacobs said, thanks to recent steps the government has taken. Washington has created 350 positions at U.S. consulates, where visa applicants undergo in-person interviews. It also has allowed visa-holders to stay longer, upgraded its Web site (www.travel.state.gov) and slashed the waiting period for approved visas to 14 days from 75 days for the 3 percent of applicants who get extra screening.
"Now, 97 percent of the people who are approved for visas get them in one or two days," the State Department said.
All travelers to the United States, whether or not they require visas, are photographed and have digitalized prints taken of both index fingers as part of the U.S.-Visit program operated by the Department of Homeland Security. The department's officials say the procedures add only seconds to screening.
Nevertheless, conflicting opinions about the ease or difficulty of travel are roiling America's $600 billion tourism industry at the start of the peak summer season, thus costing the nation money as well as goodwill, industry figures say.
Overseas travel to the United States this year will be 15 percent below the peak year of 2000 - 22 percent below, if you don't count visitors from Canada and Mexico. The numbers of Japanese travelers are down 21 percent since 2000, German travelers down 20 percent and French travelers down 24 percent, according to the Travel Industry Association.
The number of international visitors should have been well above this year's expected 46 million, said Roger Dow, the association's president and CEO. "It should be more like 60 million, when you consider America is on sale, " he said referring to a weak U.S. dollar, which makes this country a bargain for foreign travelers.
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