The Travel Promotion Act Makes Travel More Difficult

You’ll hear lots of fanfare around the Travel Promotion Act these days, but you certainly won’t hear it from me. In fact, I think it’s time for a rant. The Act looks like it’s on its way to sailing through Congress, and in my opinion, it will simply be yet another deterrent for visitors to the US. I was a guest on the Airplane Geeks podcast again this week, and we talked about it. Afterward, I decided to read up on it further and I don’t feel any better about it.

Roger Dow, President and CEO of the US Travel Association says, “the United States must invest in better explaining its security policies and attracting foreign travelers.” Yeah, right. What exactly is it about our unfriendly policies that we want to be better at communicating? If we actually changed our policies to be more welcoming, maybe it would be worth talking about.

You can read the full text of the Senate’s version of the act here. The idea is to create a non-profit corporation to promote US travel to foreign visitors. This corporation would be overseen by a board of directors built from the travel industry. What will this corporation do? Here’s what it will be generally responsible for.

  • . . . provide useful information to foreign tourists, business people, students, scholars, scientists, and others interested in traveling to the United States, including the distribution of material provided by the Federal government concerning entry requirements, required documentation, fees, processes, and information concerning declared public health emergencies, to prospective travelers, travel agents, tour operators, meeting planners, foreign governments, travel media and other international stakeholders

  • . . . identify, counter, and correct misperceptions regarding United States entry policies around the world

  • . . . maximize the economic and diplomatic benefits of travel to the United States by promoting the United States of America to world travelers through the use of, but not limited to, all forms of advertising, outreach to trade shows, and other appropriate promotional activities

  • . . . ensure that international travel benefits all States and the District of Columbia and to identify opportunities and strategies to promote tourism to rural and urban areas equally, including areas not traditionally visited by international travelers

  • . . . give priority to the Corporation’s efforts with respect to countries and populations most likely to travel to the United States

Assuming you didn’t fall asleep before finishing that, you’re probably scratching your head just like I was. Do we really need to tell people to come visit the US? Isn’t that going to be top of mind for many people anyway? I mean, I can understand why Zimbabwe might benefit from a campaign (hey, we only kill you if you own land – come visit!), but the US? And exactly what misperceptions will be dispelled about the entry procedures. Traveling to the US isn’t exactly the easiest thing around. Sometime tells me that most of things people hear aren’t misperceptions.

Most importantly, how are we funding this? Were this all a self-sustaining private fund, well, ok. By 2011, funds must come from the private sector, but those funds will be matched 1 to 1 with money from yet another visitor fee. Great.

That’s right. We are going to promote travel by slapping another fee on our visitors. Good thinking. This fee will only be charged to those visitors who don’t have to pay for the $100+ visa. That means that only the visitors from countries where we actually have a lot of visitors (hence, the Visa Waiver Program) will pay.

The Visa Waiver Program is in effect for most of Western Europe, Australia, Brunei, Japan, New Zealand, Singapore, and South Korea. Those from Belgium, Andorra, Brunei, Liechtenstein, and Slovenia must have machine-readable passports. Oh, and those from the UK must have passports specifically notated with “British Citizens” or “with unrestricted right of abode in the United Kingdom” to be allowed. If you qualify, you must use the ESTA (Electronic System for Travel Authorization) system to gain approval once every two years. It’s when you get that ESTA approval that you will have to pay $10 for travel promotion.

Remember, we make things easy here in the US. I’m so glad we’ll be able to tell the world all about it.

36 Responses to The Travel Promotion Act Makes Travel More Difficult

  1. David says:

    I live in the UK and am eligible for the Visa Waiver Programme. This new scheme looks like the USA is in effect re-imposing a visa requirement on me.
    I have to register on a website in advance… I have to provide personal information and I have to pay a fee. Looks like a visa, smells like a visa, feels like a visa, costs like a visa, but it’s not called a visa !

    Thus, for people from rich countries, you need a visa which is fairly easy to obtain, while for people from poor countries, you need a visa which is much more difficult to obtain.

  2. David SFeastbay says:

    This country was started by accepting people from anywhere who wanted to live in the ‘land of the free’. Since a certain ex-President was in office our motto is ‘don’t come here and if you must, we’re going to make it hard for you to do so. But we want easy access to your country.’

    I bet it was easier to get into Russia during the cold war then it is to get into the USA now.

  3. Frank V says:

    As long as the minimum wage wannabes in the TSA harass airline passengers with their chants of “do you want to fly today” and continue with their secret security protocols and their virtual strip search machines — all the while ignoring the legitimate security concerns — then even US citizens would rather drive than fly. There is little hope for encouraging foreign visitors so long as every paying airline passenger is viewed as a criminal/terrorist until proven otherwise.

  4. A says:

    In defense of the US customs and immigration folks. My spouse is from Canada so we do a lot of traveling up there. Without exception getting into Canada is always more difficult than getting into the states. Soon as they see a couple with passports from different countries the questions start in. Our least favorite part about visiting family by far.

  5. We’re all accustomed to the varying professionalism of the TSA when flying domestically, but I’m always disappointed at the “welcome” foreign visitors receive upon arrival, and what they must think.

    I flew into IAD this past Saturday morning from South America. 6:30am, and immigration officials were literally yelling at the passengers to prep their paperwork, where to go, and what generalities that most travelers already know. Not directing, but yelling.

    Meanwhile I’m stuffing my flash drives into my shoe knowing my laptop could be confiscated for who knows how long. (I do this regularly, myself expecting to be treated like a criminal.)

    The TSA checkpoint back into the concourse wasn’t any better. A TSA official barking orders as loud as possible, (again VERY early morning,) nonstop saying things like “you want to move then remove the shoes.” (Attemping to be humorous but still annoying as you could imagine.)

    Someone comes to the U.S. to see our sights, spend money, live a piece of the dream and they aren’t acknowledged so much as a smile or welcome.

    And Saturday was not the first time, and I’m sure others’ stories are the same.

    I’ve been through immigration and customs all over Mexico, Europe and South America. It IS possible to be assertive and efficient, yet polite and respectful at the same time.

  6. robert says:

    I agree with James. I fly to the USA frequently and the immigration officials are the most unfriendly I’ve come acress (ironic as immediately outside of the airport, you meet ‘real’ americans who have always been incredibly welcoming and friendly).

    I’ve seen how, when a new line is formed at the immigration booths, officials don’t ask visitors if they’d like to move but shout at them to do so. I can think of only one occasion over the past ten years that an immigration official has smiled.

    Of course, this is on top of the absurdity of having to provide the same immigration information *three* times, in the form of the I-94W, the ESTA and via the API through the airline.

    All this needs to change. Put simply, *visiting* the USA is a wonderful experience – *getting in* to the country is not.

  7. MathFox says:

    David SFeastbay wrote:

    I bet it was easier to get into Russia during the cold war then it is to get into the USA now.

    Well, at least they didn’t take fingerprints at the border…

    I agree with the general sentiment that improving the experience would be far more beneficial than boasting in front of the whole world about how bad you’re doing.

  8. Jim Sack says:

    I will guess that these board members will be multi-lingual, sensitive to other cultures, be open to the comments of our foreign friends and do more than warm a seat on a paying board. I would classify this a ludicrous.

  9. Best experience I ever had crossing a border was Switzerland. The officer looked at my passport, shrugged and waved me through. I had to ask for the stamp (a collector).

    Longest hassle = Egypt. The line, the conditions, the multi-step process to buy the visa before showing the passport, etc…ugh.

    Slowest immigrations = Hong Kong. Thorough and methodical, matching data phonetically and mentally translating to Cantonese.

    Rudest immigrations = Brisbane. I had an old and worn passport and was treated just short of a criminal.

    Friendlies = New Zealand and yes, the good ol’ US of A. I’ve never had a problem right here at home, long lines notwithstanding.

  10. CF says:

    Jim Sack wrote:

    I will guess that these board members will be multi-lingual, sensitive to other cultures, be open to the comments of our foreign friends and do more than warm a seat on a paying board. I would classify this a ludicrous.

    Well, at least it’s actually a non-paying board . . .

  11. Daren S says:

    As a Brit who has travelled regularly to the US over the past 25 years I can only concur with the comments above, going through US immigration is a thoroughly unpleasant experience and seems to get worse year by year. I simply don’t understand how communicating anything better would improve that experience.

  12. AStabAtEmpathy says:

    It’s a tax, simple as that. Left unchecked, government will continue to grow and create new revenues for itself to feed more bureaucracy (boards, things for it to do (“promote travel”)). Domestically, that tendency is held in check by citizens pushing back against higher taxes (I’m not against taxes, mind you, no card carrying member of the tea party, but just mean to note that an equilibrium resulting from the push/shove between government and its citizens is a good thing). Foreigners have no lobby, so taxing them is easy – they can’t push back. All they can do is stay home. Which, eventually, they will.

  13. Andy in NC says:

    It’s idiotic. I already wrote to my senators.

  14. David SFeastbay says:

    The Traveling Optimist wrote:

    Best experience I ever had crossing a border was Switzerland. The officer looked at my passport, shrugged and waved me through. I had to ask for the stamp (a collector).

    How funny, many years ago I entered flew into Geneva and the man open my passport but I’m not sure if he even looked at it. The whole time he was up in his booth looking over my head scanning the crowd of people.

  15. James Van Dellen wrote:

    I flew into IAD this past Saturday morning from South America. 6:30am, and immigration officials were literally yelling at the passengers to prep their paperwork, where to go, and what generalities that most travelers already know. Not directing, but yelling.

    Hmm, I wonder if instead of this it would be worth it to actually invest in some prepared videos that politely explain how to do this. I’ve seen these in Vegas for the TSA gates and they’re slightly boring, but save the gov’t folks from having to say it over and over and over and over and over again which must get annoying, thus why they yell. (Not an excuse, just a guess.)

    They could do some useful stuff doing with this such as having the system adjust to the languages appropriate to the flights that just arrived, etc. etc.

    This probably would be a better investment than the Travel Promotion Act. Isn’t it already the airline’s job to market and fill there seats???

  16. Alex says:

    Worth noting that the ESTA authorisation last for a couple of years. Therefore, if thats when they plan on robbing you of $10, you should be able to complete ESTA before the charge comes into effect and not have to pay for a couple of years.

    Still pretty disgraceful, if i’m coming to the US to do business with one of your companies or to spend a couple of grand on vacation I don’t expect to be relieved of another $10 for the privilege.

    I know the EU has a penchant for petty revenge, how about a €10 douchebag tax on US citizens coming to Europe?

  17. Unfortunately, this probably means that other governments will reciprocate, adding a level of difficulty for US Citizens to travel abroad. For an amusing read, find a Brazilian US Consulate website’s visa requirements. There’s a lot of ‘for everyone except US Citizens as that is what they require from Brasilian citizens.’

    =M=

  18. So far the one thing I’ve read that I actually like as an idea on this topic would be to have “boring” videos playing in several languages to explain what is required so overworked agents won’t have to yell to get the point across.

    It might also help if agents who spoke the most common foreign languages were hired as a “greeter” to work the lines before coming up to the window and being rejected cuz their paperwork wasn’t in order.

    Outside of that, international travel will continue so long as people of all nations wish to travel abroad for vacation or have business to serve in other countries. And many of those other countries have already caught on so it’s nothing new, nothing really to get worked up about and nothing that seems likely to go away anywhere it applies any time soon.

  19. An old example: Russia.

    When it was the USSR the cost of an entry visa was in the $150 range. Pure hard currency grab, nothing more than that. Wanna go bad enough? Pay up. Oh, don’t forget the formal invitation from some government agency or state tourist agency.

    Today? $130 for the same visa. Invitation still required from at least a registered hotel according to the visa service website I’ve investigated.

    Have I ever been to Russia? No, and that’s part of the reason why but it seems tourism to Russia has only gone up since the Wall came down. Now, if other countries, the US included, are falling within this same category, then we all have choices to make and I need to look at the cost of entry to Russia compared to other countries around the world that I haven’t been to yet and see where they fall.

    Bottom line it seems from this, then, is that the US is not the first one out of the gate to tax, charge or gouge visitors. Either we find another country that we’re interested in and is cheap to enter or we suck it up, fork it over and go have that once-in-a-lifetime experience.

    Pretty simple, really.

  20. Marek says:

    The Traveling Optimist says

    Friendlies = New Zealand and yes, the good ol’ US of A. I’ve never had a problem right here at home, long lines notwithstanding.

    Well, yes, I dare say it is if the US is home: US citizens’ experience is not the same as that of foreign visitors.

    I have two simple suggestions:

    1. Appoint as directors of this new corporation people who are passionate about promoting the USA but who are citizens and residents of any country in the world except the US. Unless they share the experience of foreign visitors, they won’t understand it.

    2. I am flying to the States with my family at the end of this week. Amazingly we are all flying on the same airline and going to the same place. So I have to enter exactly the same information over and over again to get the ESTA clearance. A little bit of intelligent web design would make the whole thing far more straightforward while providing exactly the same information.

  21. BJ says:

    I visited the US in late September. The ESTA process was easy and I had an approval within minutes. I entered through LAX and was actually pleasantly surprised with the friendliness we received from customs etc (I have had bad experiences before). The TSA in all airports (LAX/SFO/LAS) and terminals were great for our domestic flights – they were polite and efficient.

    I don’t wish to pay another tax on my ticket. The countries who have to pay the tax are the ones who are the ‘friendlies’ and don’t have many issues anyway. The screening/processing etc does not affect our choice of country for a holiday however it may affect our choice of entry/exit point.

  22. Jason says:

    In the bullet points Cranky, they forgot to mention the anger management courses that should be mandatory for all immigration, customs and TSA agents. They should spend the money on something wise like a study on the Japanese immigration. Tokyo were just outstanding with someone at the other end of security (on return flight) to collect and hand me my belongings after x-ray! Now that is how to welcome and goodbye a tourist.

    Nothing like an LAX welcome though at 7am by immigration after making your way through the burrow of a rancid terminal.

    I make a point of telling everyone not to judge the US by the entry experience, but wait until they are on the other side where the real America waits. Pleasant, kind, helpful people with some of the most varied and fascinating scenery in the world.

    I love your country when I finally get in!!

  23. Kim says:

    David wrote:

    I live in the UK and am eligible for the Visa Waiver Programme. This new scheme looks like the USA is in effect re-imposing a visa requirement on me.
    I have to register on a website in advance… I have to provide personal information and I have to pay a fee. Looks like a visa, smells like a visa, feels like a visa, costs like a visa, but it’s not called a visa !
    Thus, for people from rich countries, you need a visa which is fairly easy to obtain, while for people from poor countries, you need a visa which is much more difficult to obtain.

    David, until you’ve actually applied for a visa to the US you’ll appreciate just having to fill in a form and pay a fee. To visit Australia you’ve had to do the same thing since at least 2005.

    On a personal note, having sat through the visa process I’m not going to apply again once this one is up (and I have it because of business purposes only). People are learning that there is a whole wide world out there that offers the same stuff for less money and less hassle. Even the Economist ran an article saying how conferences etc were moving overseas because keynote speakers couldn’t get visas. Something to think about.

  24. JayB says:

    Just some observations, from someone whose ancesters came to America in the 1700s, not under the best of circumstances, from a “foreign” country. This seems like a waste of money until we, us, change our ideas about the rest of the world. Foreigners probably already know much more about us that we care to admit.

    In so many ways, we are a very, very insular country, made up of people who are very suspicious of so many things foreign, not the least of whom..foreigners. Doesn’t it seem that today our biggest question about foreigners is: are they coming here/are they here legally? Suspicion first, welcome second.

    We don’t like people speaking anything other than English, regardless how close to our southern and northern borders you may live. In fact, anyone speaking English, not of the American variety, gives us pause. And heavern forbid, should we visit your country and you not understand us and speak to us in American-English.

    Of course, we can get away with all this because we can. My way or the highway, and if you don’t like it, stay away, and don’t expect us to visit you again. Don’t take it pesonally, because we’re going through a phase in our country where, amongst ourselves, we don’t particularly like each other. We seem to be more divided on so many things, more so than I can remember from times past.

    I hope we can change our feelings toward foreigners, but I think my generation is hopeless. Spending money to make us change won’t work. The younger generations? I hope. Maybe they won’t have a choice, like we had.

  25. Alex C says:

    The most idiotic thing about this is that before any of the funded programs can have any effect, it has already caused bad publicity around the world because this program is seen as being absurd and disgusting to the people who would be traveling. It’s like there’s an assumption that word of it would never reach the far reaches across the Atlantic…

    That said, US arrival fees are negligible compared with many other fees. $10 slapped on visits to promote travel is no less abhorrent than the departure fee that BAA slaps onto my Lufthansa ticket when leaving LHR, just so that it can pay for BA’s shiny new terminal while leaving me in a 1960s bus station.

  26. JayB – I believe our “ancestry” is similar but look a little farther than home. The fear of foreigners you describe is practically the same story all over the world.

    I did some further digging in to Russia, a country I have wanted to visit for better than 20+ years. The Trans Siberian Railway? Lake Baikal? The statue of Mother Russia just north of Volgograd (Stalingrad) much less St. Petersburg and Moscow. The list of things to see and do is as big as the country itself.

    What did I find? A travel article basically telling me and any other non-white Russian to stay away.

    A travel guide actually telling the world at large that conditions on the ground essentially guarantee safety in Mother Russia for white Russians or at least white foreigners only!!!!

    Racially motivated attacks were on the rise and local and government authorities were either doing little or incapable of doing much about it. Pickpockets were rampant, skinhead gangs roam the streets and even the police may be on the take. The article actually said NOT to let the POLICE search your belongings or pockets!!!

    If I HAD to go, stay in the central parts of the cities, do not go out at night, don’t go anywhere alone and avoid the suburbs. Other than “the ‘hood” of any major city, someone please tell me if travel guides about the United States warn foreigners not to go out at night in major American cities! “Don’t go out at night on South Beach.” Right!

    Clearly not every Russian feels, believes or acts this way but I’m also trying to imagine the level of xenophobia or at least uncertainty in the rural parts of the country after decades of Marxist/Lennon dogma.

    Will the menfolk in the village grab pitchforks and hide their women and children at the mere Shrek-ian sight of me in the streets? Will they want to touch my skin and hair to see if it feels any different than their own? Will they go out of their way to break what meager bread they may have to show they mean no harm and are not like “other” people in town? Or will they simply go about their business, no big deal, and maybe stop long enough to give directions if I need help on my way?

    Add it all up. After I get rooked for the entry fees and hassled by government agencies, if I DON’T get assaulted near the major attractions, which could happen in Paris, Prague or Perth just as easily, what reaction and treatment would I, a Yankee foreigner who ALSO happens to be a minority, receive elsewhere in the country?

    All things considered, do I still want to go to Russia?

    You bet yer A$$ I do!

  27. Wrong Lennon. Make that Marxist/Lenin.

  28. Carl says:

    Cranky, I agree with you 100%. U.S. visa process and Customs & Immigration are like those of third world countries, and a disgrace – affecting both foreign visitors and U.S. residents coming home. For some reason this agency is never held accountable. Even U.S. law and due process don’t apply when you are in their domain. I know people who will not travel to USA because they have been harassed and treated rudely by Customs & Immigration.

    Rather than improving the Customs & Immigration experience, this proposal taxes visitors, sets up new complexity for “visa waiver” travelers, and sets up a new government corporation, which will likely try to perpetuate itself forever, whose job it is to tell people that our Customs & Immigration process isn’t as bad as it seems. How can our lawmakers do that with a straight face? It’s nuts!

  29. Gary Leff says:

    We have always been at war with Eastasia.

  30. CF says:

    Carl wrote:

    Rather than improving the Customs & Immigration experience, this proposal taxes visitors, sets up new complexity for “visa waiver” travelers, and sets up a new government corporation, which will likely try to perpetuate itself forever, whose job it is to tell people that our Customs & Immigration process isn’t as bad as it seems. How can our lawmakers do that with a straight face? It’s nuts!

    To be fair, this is not a government corporation. It’s just chartered by them and half-funded by them. Hmm.

    Gary Leff wrote:

    We have always been at war with Eastasia.

    No, we have always been at war with Eurasia.

  31. MathFox says:

    @ The Traveling Optimist:

    someone please tell me if travel guides about the United States warn foreigners not to go out at night in major American cities! “Don’t go out at night on South Beach.” Right!

    The Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs says (liberal translation):

    Some parts of bigger cities are known unsafe. Ask for information in your hotel.

    On the same page they have several warnings about the Department of Homeland Security; most importantly: “Joking at TSA checkpoints is best avoided. It may cause more trouble (arrest) than it is worth.”

  32. JayB says:

    The Traveling Optimist wrote:

    JayB – I believe our “ancestry” is similar but look a little farther than home. The fear of foreigners you describe is practically the same story all over the world.

    Your points certainly make sense. Travel our country and you will see some crazy things the way we look at each other and at those outsiders. Surprise, surprise, you’ll find much the same in other countries. Strange how we can so easily recognize hypocrisy in others, yet so difficult, in ourselves!

  33. Math Fox –

    The Dutch Ministry highlights my point exactly. No where in the world should a foreign tourist venture in to the rougher areas of a city, certainly not without a knowledgeable and trustworthy escort.

    The underlying message here is for those who might still have a “land of milk and honey” vision of the US. It warns them NOT to believe that every street and neighborhood in the US is safe. Just as they would hardly enter “the ‘hood” in their own hometown they should exercise the same caution in the United States, nothing more than that.

    Fortunately in cities across the planet the most popular attractions, restaurants and hotels are not in the dangerous sections of town.

  34. MathFox says:

    The Dutch ministerial rating system is meant to pinpoint countries that are dangerous (civil war situations and such). The US gets the rating “normally safe” (the best available rating, given to the majority of countries). However there are some differences between the US and the Netherlands and being aware of the risks that Dutchmen don’t know at home keeps them out of trouble. We don’t have that bad neighbourhoods that people are told to avoid visiting them.

  35. I disagree. The Netherlands is no utopia, any more than any other developed country.

    My sister lives in the Hague; I’ve visited her often and she reports on neighborhoods there that are best left off the tourist itinerary. From Auckland to Amsterdam and Atlanta I’ve seen neighborhoods that, but for the language, are virtually interchangeable.

    Who goes to The Netherlands just to hang out on the piers of Rotterdam? Nobody. There’s nothing to see, no tourist sites and, like any dockyard around the world, is surrounded by rough territory.

    Amsterdam is a huge city and, like any large city, has neighborhoods that are at least best classified as “no reason to be there” since there are no tourist attractions. The new stadium was built in a part of town intended to receive attention due to lack of jobs and opportunities.

    Even the “Red Light District” receives a caution for pickpockets and potential muggings during the late hours and if some fool happens to be wandering alone.

    Larger American cities do have areas where even the police will not travel without combat gear, this is true. The common sense part for the international tourist is built in: Those neighborhoods do not have popular attractions and they’re never mentioned in guide books so there is, again, “no reason to be there.”

    There’s more to any country than what’s listed in a guide book. The smart tourist will do well to ask about a particular part of town anywhere in the world, no matter what country he’s in. If the desk clerk says don’t go over there, listen to them. In some cases they live there and know what they’re talking about.

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