News for the Hospitality Executive
|By Steve Johnson, San Jose Mercury News, Calif.
Knight Ridder/Tribune Business News
Dec. 29, 2003 - Things were already rough for the tourism industry.
First came a plunge in foreign visitors after Sept. 11. Then the United States made it far more difficult for foreigners to obtain tourist visas. And last week, the government warned travelers of heightened terrorism risks, and several Christmas Eve flights from Paris to Los Angeles were canceled because of those concerns.
Now there's a new headache for the industry: Starting next Monday, government inspectors will require the millions of foreigners arriving at this country's air and sea ports to be fingerprinted and photographed every time they enter the United States.
Federal authorities say the change is vitally needed to keep terrorists out of the country and should add just 10 to 15 seconds to the time it now takes to screen these travelers.
But some in the tourism trade worry that it will provide one more reason for international travelers to bypass the United States.
"It's intrusive," said Bob Roberts, executive director of the California Ski Industry Association, of the new program, dubbed United States Visitor and Immigrant Status Indicator Technology, or US-VISIT for short. "It's going to irritate a lot of travelers."
Mary Hoppe of Travel Advisors in Los Gatos agreed.
"I think it's going to be a negative and it will affect the travel industry," she said. As evidence, Hoppe recounted a recent conversation she had with a Malaysian friend considering visiting the United States. "I invited her to come, and she says, 'You know, I really don't think the United States wants foreigners in their country.'"
Since the Sept. 11 attacks, federal authorities have launched a wide array of efforts to beef up security in the nation's transportation system, particularly at airports. One such security program, dubbed CAPPS II -- which will run each domestic passenger's name, address, birth date and home phone number through commercial databases to check on their identity -- has aroused considerable ire among U.S. citizens.
The US-VISIT program affects only foreign travelers. But it too is proving controversial.
US-VISIT will be put into effect at all 115 airports that receive international passengers -- including the three in the Bay Area -- and 14 seaports Monday, followed by 50 major land border crossings Dec. 31, 2004. All other land border spots will employ the system by Dec. 31, 2005.
U.S. citizens and permanent residents will be exempt. But millions of other visitors with visas will be photographed and have their index fingers electronically fingerprinted, in addition to having to answer the usual questions from U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials.
The fingerprints and photographs will be matched against government databases containing information about known criminals and terrorists to verify the visitor's identity. The process will be repeated when the person leaves the country, in part to make sure they have complied with the terms of their visa.
But questions have been raised about how well US-VISIT will work.
"The program is a very risky endeavor," the U.S. General Accounting Office concluded in September after intensively studying the concept, which is expected to cost at least $7 billion over the next dozen years.
One major problem cited by the GAO is that US-VISIT is expected to work with a number of other security programs, some of which have proven to be glitch-prone. One such program, designed to monitor foreign students in this country, is so slow that it often takes university officials hours to log on, the GAO report said.
Another concern cited by the GAO was that the federal government lacked sufficient people to run the program.
Nonetheless, federal authorities in charge of US-VISIT say they are confident it will improve security and insist it shouldn't concern foreign travelers.
"We're doing whatever we can to minimize any impact on travel, commerce and tourism," said Bill Strassberger of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. He said the program was tested recently at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport and added, "it has been working down there. We haven't had word of any problems."
Officials at local airports said they also don't anticipate trouble.
"There really hasn't been any sort of comment that this would cause any sort of major delay," said Steve Luckenbach, a spokesman for Mineta San Jose International Airport.
But none of that has allayed concerns, especially given what has happened to tourism since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
The number of foreigners visiting the United States shrank from about 51 million in 2000 to 42 million in 2002, the Travel Industry Association of America reported. That number is expected to drop again for 2003. Some in that group say the increasing scrutiny of foreign travelers is contributing to the drop.
For example, they cite a new procedure that went into effect Aug. 1 requiring U.S. embassies and consulates overseas to personally interview nearly all applicants for visitor visas. Critics complain that the new rule frequently forces visa applicants to wait weeks for an appointment and then to stand in long lines when they show up for their interviews.
The situation could worsen after Oct. 26, 2004, these critics contend. That's when residents of 27 countries who can now travel here without a visa will be required to have machine-readable passports or be forced to go through the lengthy process of applying for a visa.
Travel industry experts say some of the 27 nations -- including Spain, Italy and France -- may not meet the deadline, which could discourage their citizens from coming to the United States.
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(c) 2003, San Jose Mercury News, Calif. Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Business News.