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The U.S. Travel Association Fears Full Enforcement and Lack of Education
Surrounding New Electronic System for Travel Authorization (ESTA)
Could Cost U.S. $3.2 billion in Business in First 12 Months

By Sara K. Clarke, The Orlando Sentinel, Fla.McClatchy-Tribune Regional News

Feb. 19, 2010--The U.S. government is about to impose another new security requirement on overseas visitors heading for this country -- and, once again, the nation's tourism industry is worried about how it might affect business.

The U.S. government is about to impose another new security requirement on overseas visitors heading for this country -- and, once again, the nation's tourism industry is worried about how it might affect business, though this time it supports the measure.

The Electronic System for Travel Authorization, known as "ESTA," is an automated system designed to screen travelers coming from nations where the U.S. doesn't require a visa for entering the country.

The application -- which has to be completed via the Internet before the traveler can board a plane to the U.S. -- helps the U.S. Department of Homeland Security determine ahead of time whether a traveler is eligible to enter the country and whether that person poses a security risk. The system replaces the I-94W form, which used to be filled out by airline passengers while en route to the U.S.

ESTA is just the latest in a series of security measures imposed by the federal government since the September 2001 terrorist attacks. While the tourism industry has objected to many of the previous proposals and programs, terming them too cumbersome, the U.S. Travel Association, its leading trade group, is on board with this one -- pretty much.

"U.S. Travel is a strong supporter of the program," association spokesman Geoff Freeman said.

Still, the trade group doesn't think the federal government has done enough to publicize ESTA, and it fears that could cost the U.S. some tourism dollars.

That's because ESTA's online registration -- good for two years -- has been in use since early last year without enforcement measures, and in that time 6 percent of all the travelers who should have been using it did not.

U.S. Customs and Border Protection began enforcing the program on Jan. 20, though with a 60-day grace period that soon expires. The U.S. Travel Association fears that, if 6 percent of travelers are turned back at the boarding gate once full enforcement begins March 20, it could cost the U.S. 1 million visitors and an estimated $3.2 billion in business during the first 12 months. That, in turn, would result in a loss of about 32,000 jobs and $488 million in tax revenue.

"Every visitor we lose is a diplomat, is a job creator," Freeman said. "Risking losing these customers because we haven't done everything we can to educate them is unacceptable."

In the years since the 9-11 attacks, the federal government and the tourism industry have sparred over the effects of heightened travel security on U.S. hospitality.

The tourism lobby raised concerns when the government proposed such measures as requiring personal interviews with visa applicants before they left their home country, and fingerprinting international travelers upon their arrival in the U.S. The industry worries that the government does not spend enough money to publicize its new policies, and has said potential visitors from other countries increasingly view the U.S. as a "fortress America."

Both ESTA and international travel are of particular importance to Central Florida tourism.

In 2008, overseas visitors comprised nearly 5 percent of all travelers who came to Orlando -- and those from other countries typically stay longer and spend more than their domestic counterparts. Also, the visa-waiver countries to which the ESTA program applies include the United Kingdom and Germany, among Orlando's biggest overseas markets.

"That $3.2 billion [in "lost" business projected by U.S. Travel], that's going to hurt us more than it would hurt other destinations," said Gary Sain, president and chief executive officer of the Orlando/Orange County Convention & Visitors Bureau.

To support its assertion that the government hasn't done enough to promote ESTA, the industry cites a report from the U.S. Department of Commerce, which found that complying with the ESTA requirement ranks among the top deterrents to travel to the U.S. cited by German visitors -- even though the free, online application process often yields an instantaneous decision.

"It comes down to perception," Sain said. "I think there's a lot of miscommunication."

The U.S. Travel Association is urging the government to launch a more robust public relations campaign. It also wants the government to provide alternatives for enrolling, such as Internet kiosks at airports; to study the reasons behind travelers' non-compliance; consider extending the grace period further; and issue one-time waivers to travelers who show up for their flight without an online approval.

Walt Disney World, which draws a large percentage of its guests from overseas, said the program is an "important security measure," but it also echoes the association's concerns.

"It's essential that information on the program is communicated effectively to foreign visitors," said Zoraya Suarez, a Disney spokeswoman.

The airline industry says it is comfortable with the new program and defends the government for having already mounted an "aggressive campaign" to communicate the online enrollment requirement to overseas travelers.

"Whether or not everybody knows has yet to be seen, but certainly not for lack of trying," said David Castelveter, a spokesman for the Air Transport Association, airlines' main industry group. "I don't think that it [ESTA] will hamper travel at all."

Sara K. Clarke can be reached at skclarke@orlandosentinel.com or 407-420-5664.

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Copyright (c) 2010, The Orlando Sentinel, Fla.

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