Why the World is Avoiding America

Speaker's Corner: U.S. policies keep many international travelers out of the country. Eric Lucas says he and his fellow Americans are missing out on more than just money.

04.04.08 | 3:00 PM ET

Statue of Liberty“You guys are from the States, yes?”

Our interlocutor, speaking in the crisp cadences of the British Caribbean, was a mid-50s entrepreneur with a food stall along the Rainbow Highway in Belize. Her servings were generous and her smile as gentle as the breeze.

“We’re from Seattle,” I acknowledged. “Have you been?”

She sighed.

“My daughter lives in L.A. I’ve been trying to go visit her—I’d love to see Disneyland—but my visa application has been rejected twice. It costs $100 to apply, you don’t get it back, and that’s about as much as I make here in a week. One has to go to the embassy in person—that takes up a whole day. I can’t afford to try again.”

I thought taking money for an application that is rejected is theft, but, of course, not when the government does it.

However, that may be the best way for us to get revenue from foreign visitors. Humanity is staying away from the United States in droves—overseas arrivals in the U.S. have declined 11 percent this decade, from 26 million in 2000 to 23 million in 2007. This, while travel booms worldwide: It’s the world’s largest industry, worth $5 trillion, growing 6 percent a year, employing almost a quarter-billion people, projected to reach $9 trillion by 2015, when it will be 11 percent of the world’s economy.

With the U.S. dollar becoming confetti, you’d think more overseas visitors would be headed this way to spend their pounds, euros and other currencies. Worldwide, international arrivals grew by 52 million in 2007. Not here.

Why is this? Simple: sheer arrogance. The United States is a crass, greedy and rude host. Our operating principles seem to be:

Foreigners are criminals until proven otherwise.

Here are the 29 countries whose residents may visit the U.S. without a visa: Andorra, Australia, Austria, Belgium, Bermuda, Brunei, Canada, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Iceland, Ireland, Italy, Japan, Liechtenstein, Luxembourg, Monaco, Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Portugal, San Marino, Singapore, Slovenia, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, United Kingdom.

It’s a near lily-white list. The rest of the world’s people—all five multicolored billion of them—are suspect.

People know this overseas. Still determined to visit the U.S.? The visa process involves going in person to a U.S. embassy or consulate, where a consular official will “interview” you to ascertain that you aren’t going to overthrow the government.

Canada, by the way, accepts non-visa visits from citizens of more than 50 countries, including such non-white locales as Papua New Guinea and Swaziland. The European Union exempts 43 countries plus all EU-member nations; the total includes South Korea, Brazil, Chile and Mexico. So, it’s easier for a Mexican citizen to visit Europe than the U.S.

Speak English or else.

The sign said, “O’Hare next left.”

I read English, so I was able to get to the airport and fly home. But suppose you speak, oh, Cantonese?

There’s an international symbol—an outline of an airplane. You’ll see it on direction signs all over Europe, Asia, Mexico and other backward places. Not here. “Costs too much to add signs for all them furaners.” That’s what a highway official once told me. The Bush administration has so far spent more than $600 billion on the war in Iraq. That’s $270 million a day. My seat-of-the-pants spreadsheet analysis shows that we could take the one-day Iraq budget and retrofit every applicable highway sign in the country, with money left over to teach language appreciation in public schools.

Up in Canada, my favorite un-American place, Tourism Vancouver posts its Web site in seven languages. And at Vancouver’s Metropolitan Hotel, staff members muster 20 different languages among them.

The Los Angeles Convention and Visitors Bureau has four foreign languages on its Web site—Spanish, Korean, Chinese and Japanese—which is a darn sight better than Seattle, my hometown (two, Spanish and Japanese) and San Francisco (none). Disneyland? Spanish. San Diego? Zip. The State Department? Zero. The Travel Industry Association’s new Web site promoting travel to the U.S. has four foreign languages but, um, no content. Guess we deported all our translators because they were speaking in tongues.

Give us your money and go home.

Better yet, stay away.

As with that unfortunate victim of U.S. policy in Belize, you don’t get your money back if you apply for a visa and are rejected. Why are people rejected? Scruffiness, unsuitability, past contributions to Greenpeace or general uncollateralized ickiness. Read the State Department guidelines—visitors must satisfy consular officers that they deserve to enter. But consular officials do not have to explain reasons for rejection, and they don’t.

A colleague of mine has business in Brazil, where one of his investors conceived the idea of taking his family to Disney World. This wealthy businessman, who could buy a hotel in the U.S., never mind hotel rooms, flew to Sao Paulo, paid $500 ($100 per person) to apply for a visa, patiently spent an hour answering questions, flew home and was turned down two weeks later. The letter suggested he reapply ($500 more, please!), but he took his family to Europe instead. Brazilians can enter the EU visa-exempt.

The nonrefundable visa application fee recently went up to $131. Luckily for many visitor wannabes, their currency is climbing while the dollar is shredding. Unluckily for us, we’re too busy protecting the homeland from supposedly scurrilous foreigners to actually let them in. Until we change our official and unofficial attitudes toward the world, five billion people will pass us by. We’re missing out on a lot more than just money—but we’re missing out on a lot of that, too.

Photo by JHogg9144, via Flickr (Creative Commons)