Fewer Britons are visiting the United States than in the year 2000, despite an exchange rate that makes holidays much better value than they were then.
This week, when the pound rose to $2.07, its highest level against the dollar for 26 years, the US Office of Travel and Tourism Industries released figures that confirm how badly tourism from Britain has been suffering since the terrorist attacks of 2001 and the measures enacted in response to them.
Between January and July this year, when the pound was worth more than $2, 2.39 million Britons travelled to the US. Yet in 2000, when the pound fetched just $1.59, there were 2.61 million British visitors.
The figures are a challenge to tourism chiefs in the US, who had predicted that this would be a record year, in line with a rapid rise in global tourism. Many analysts believe that, but for the favourable exchange rate, the decline in British visitors would have been steeper still.
One leading figure in the industry argued this week that the US travel trade had only itself to blame. Jonathan Tisch, the owner of the New York Giants football team who is chief adviser to the US Department of Commerce’s Tourism Board, told The Daily Telegraph that too little had been done to promote the country and to ensure that visitors still felt welcome, despite tighter security and entry procedures.
“For decades, the US has taken its tourism industry for granted,” he said. “It has been disparate and it has failed to speak with one voice. Only a handful of cities can show an increase in visitor numbers since 2000 and our entry process is seen as one of the worst in the world.” British visitors have become increasingly disillusioned with stringent regulations, delays and what many see as over-zealousness among immigration and security staff. Telegraph readers have complained of being misidentified as terrorist suspects, held back for questioning or treated aggressively.
The authorities argue that everything they have done has been designed to improve security. Yet a recent report from the Transport Security Administration showed that undercover staff succeeded in 75 per cent of attempts to carry fake bombs and explosives through baggage detectors at Los Angeles airport, and 60 per cent of attempts at Chicago.
Mr Tisch is a founding member of the Discover America Partnership (DAP), an umbrella body of leading figures in the US tourism industry, which is working to cut waiting times at airport arrivals, streamline customs controls and offer a friendlier welcome in an attempt to attract more holidaymakers.
The group recognises that the exchange rate has cushioned the industry. It estimates that since 2001 international visitors to Boston have fallen by 25 per cent, to Miami by 33 per cent, to Chicago by 21 per cent and to Los Angeles by 29 per cent. It estimates that the number of British visitors will not reach 2000 levels again until at least 2010.
New York remains the exception. Mr Tisch says this is largely because the mayor, Michael Bloomberg, has made inbound travel a priority, with high-profile advertising campaigns involving the actors Robert De Niro and Julianne Moore, and extra staff to welcome arriving tourists.
Other cities are now copying this charm offensive. Miami international airport is sending all its employees to the Disney Institute in Orlando, Florida, for training in customer service.
From this week, passengers flying into Houston and Washington Dulles will be shown a seven-minute Disney film of US tourist attractions and smiling locals in an effort to distract them from delays at passport control and convince them that visitors are welcome.
Welcome: Portraits of America, directed by Frederico Tio, who made the film Finding Nemo, will eventually be played at all principal US airports. Airlines are also being urged to screen it on flights.
“The opportunity to make a great first impression with international visitors is never higher than in the first 100 steps when they walk off the aeroplane,” said Jay Rasulo, chairman of Walt Disney Parks and Resorts.
That first impression might not be enhanced early next year, when visitors will be required to have prints taken of all 10 fingers, rather than the two taken at present.
A spokesman for the Discover America Partnership said: “Ten-finger scan technology will improve security and streamline the entry process by eliminating false positives that could result in legitimate travellers having to spend time in secondary inspection and possibly missing connecting flights. However, without an effective communications strategy, deployment of the technology could be misconstrued as unwelcoming and intrusive, further discouraging inbound overseas travel.”