International travel –1 billion opportunities a year but U.S. missing the boat

While staying at the Outrigger Laguna Phuket Beach Resort recently, I had a chance to talk to many of our guests.

International travel –1 billion opportunities a year but U.S. missing the boat

While staying at the Outrigger Laguna Phuket Beach Resort recently, I had a chance to talk to many of our guests. They were a very diverse group, coming from all over the world – Japan, China, Korea, U.K., Sweden, Russia, Germany, and so on.

“Amazing Thailand” is booming, taking advantage of the rising tide of international travel, which, in 2012, hit the 1 billion-passengers-per-year mark, worldwide, for the first time. (That’s even more impressive when you compare it with the planet’s population of 7 billion!)

By contrast, the United States is doing a lousy job of promoting the growth of in-bound international travel. And now, I worry that reaction to the overseas connections in the recent Boston Marathon bombings will make it even more difficult for our country to get its share of those 1 billion international travelers, let alone the vast potential for future growth.

Let me illustrate my point by sharing some personal experiences from my recent travels. On arrival in Thailand, I waited in the immigration line maybe three minutes before I could present my passport and a simple post-card-size form to an official. She brushed my passport past an ID scanner, stamped it and smiled, saying “Welcome to Thailand!”

No visa. No fee. No waiting. Pleasant surroundings.

After the activities in Phuket, my next stop was Abu Dhabi in the United Arab Emirates (UAE), where I attended a Global Summit on Travel & Tourism issues. My experience on arrival was even easier than in Thailand. All I needed to show was my passport.

No form. No visa. No fee. No waiting. Pleasant experience.

By contrast, even getting permission to travel to the United States is often a challenge unless you live in one of the 37 countries (30 European nations plus Australia, Brunei, Japan, New Zealand, Singapore, South Korea and Taiwan) with visa waiver agreements with the U.S. State Department.

For most travelers, including those who are citizens of Thailand and the UAE, the visa process is very difficult, time-consuming, expensive – and demeaning. It takes weeks, if not months, to apply for and get permission to travel to the U.S. Applicants pay a non-refundable fee of $160 per person for this “opportunity.” They must have a personal interview at a U.S. consulate or embassy, which often also means travel to another city and an overnight stay. If for any reason the visa is denied, the U.S. keeps the $160.

There are a number of YouTube films on the Internet that tell applicants how to go through the U.S. visa application process. Here are links to two: http://tinyurl . com/d53ded2 or . Suffice it to say, they are not encouraging.

Or, check out this recent article in eTurboNews: http:// . It is the personal story of Dimitri Makarov, an attorney in Ukraine and a part-time writer for Hawai‘i-based eTN, an online publisher of global travel industry news. Makarov wanted to visit the U.S., so took three unpaid days off from work to travel 15 hours to the U.S. embassy in Ukraine’s capital, Kiev, where he completed visa application forms, presented substantiating documents on his travel plans and personal financial status (income, bank and credit cards), paid $160, and was fingerprinted. Then, after a two-minute interview with a consular officer, his visa application was rejected because he failed to convince the interviewer that he would return to Ukraine. Unless an applicant can do that, U.S. law obliges the interviewing consular officer to presume that the applicant will abandon paid-in-full, roundtrip airline tickets and attempt to stay in the U.S. as an undocumented alien!

Potential travelers to the U.S. lucky enough to finally get a visa still have one more hurdle to jump – U.S. border control. At major U.S. international airports such as Miami and New York City, the wait time for processing in the immigration hall can be up to two hours. (Honolulu International Airport processes international visitors in about 20–25 minutes on average, according to U.S. Dept. of Homeland Security data.) If all the paperwork is not perfect, a visitor can still be put back on a plane and returned to his or her homeland.

With “welcoming” hurdles like that, all I can say is, “Good luck to Brand USA!” – the public-private partnership (sponsored, in part, by the Hawai‘i Tourism Authority) whose mission is to promote international travel to the United States.

Travel and tourism is vital to the American economy. Consider this data from research by the World Travel & Tourism Council (WTTC) – Travel & Tourism in the U.S.:

• Produces 8.7 % of the U.S. gross domestic product (GDP), more than automobile manufacturing and chemical manufacturing.

• Sustains 14.3 million jobs direct, indirect and induced – 10.3% of total employment.

• Supports 18 jobs with each $1 million of tourist spending.

If the U.S. wants to “up its game” so as to effectively share in the rapidly growing 1 billion-passenger international tourism market, it needs to make major improvements in the process for issuing visas and greeting visitors. Let’s hope that reaction to the Boston Marathon bombings does not take things in the opposite direction.

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