|By Hugo Martin, Los Angeles
TimesMcClatchy-Tribune Regional News
Feb. 3, 2010--Tourism boosters say they fear that new security measures to register and screen visitors to the U.S. may discourage too many big-spending tourists from entering the country.
At issue are online registration requirements for visitors from 35 countries -- including Britain, Germany and Japan -- who are not required to have visas and who generate most of the tourism dollars in the U.S.
Registration under the Electronic System for Travel Authorization has been required since last year. But beginning March 20, airlines face hefty fines if they allow passengers from those countries to board a plane without registering.
The online registration was one of several recommendations made in 2004 by the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States, also known as the 9/11 Commission, to screen foreign visitors before they board a U.S.-bound plane.
But the U.S. Travel Assn., a group that promotes the nation's $770-billion travel industry, worries that not enough foreign travelers are aware of the deadline to register online with the ESTA program.
"People are not being defiant; they just don't know," said Roger Dow, president of the association.
Any airlines that allow passengers to fly to the U.S. without registering online and getting clearance will be fined $3,300 per person. To avoid the fines, the country's largest airlines have promised to block passengers from flying without the clearance.
The rate of compliance with the security measure has been about 91% for inbound passengers. Still, Dow contends that the Department of Homeland Security has not done enough to explain the requirement to foreign tourists.
As a result, he fears, thousands of visitors may be kept from traveling to and spending much-needed dollars in the U.S.
Although the association supports the security requirements, Dow said, there should have been a high-profile communications campaign to get 100% compliance from inbound travelers. He also suggests that the federal agency install electronic kiosks at foreign airports so that travelers can register before boarding.
"We've got to have more dialogue," Dow said. "We need a plan in place to get the word out to more people and an alternative way to register them at the airport."
Based on the current compliance rate, he estimates that about 2,200 foreign travelers a day will be kept off inbound flights for failing to meet the requirement. Travelers from visa-waiver countries spend an average of $4,500 per person per trip to the U.S., he said.
At that rate, Dow said, the U.S. will lose millions of dollars a year, at a time when the economic recession is squeezing the country's travel industry.
Federal security agencies insist that they have been warning foreign travelers about the deadline for months.
"We've been working diligently in those countries to educate travelers about the ESTA requirement," said Joanne Ferreira, a spokeswoman for U.S. Customs and Border Protection, an agency of the Homeland Security Department.
She said her agency and the department have spent $4.5 million on billboards, videos, brochures, newspaper ads, airport signs and posters to get the word out. The agencies have also talked about the requirement at travel shows and conferences in Germany, Japan, Spain, France and the U.S., among other countries.
"We are also facilitating this for travelers who do not speak English as a first language," she said.
Ferreira said federal agencies have not installed online kiosks at foreign airports because they have no authority to do so.
In 2008, about 9 million visitors to the U.S. came from the 35 countries where visas are not required.
Until January 2009, such visitors submitted basic information -- such as a name, a country of origin and an address while in the U.S. -- on a paper form known as the I-94. Under the ESTA program, travelers must submit that information at https://esta.cbp.dhs.gov.
The information is automatically checked against federal databases for criminal history and other potential risks. Airlines are automatically informed whether the traveler is cleared to fly. The clearance is good for two years or until the traveler's passport expires.
In most cases, the process should take only a few minutes, but because of possible delays the Homeland Security Department recommends that travelers register 72 hours before flying.
Air carriers will refuse to board any passenger who fails to get online clearance, said Victoria Day, a spokeswoman for the Air Transport Assn., the trade group that represents the nation's largest airlines.
Whether foreign travelers who have been denied boarding will be reimbursed for a missed flight will vary by airline and by the type of ticket they bought, she said.
A United Airlines spokeswoman said that if a passenger was denied boarding for failing to register, the airline would typically waive the fees to book a later flight after the flier registers for clearance.
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