Is the U.S. Treating Tourists Like Terrorists?

Travel Blog  •  Jim Benning  •  02.01.07 | 10:54 AM ET

Whenever I fly home from a trip overseas and am herded into immigration and customs lines at the airport, usually by stone-faced officers hollering instructions at the top of their lungs, I’m always struck by just how cold and unwelcoming the feds make the arrival process. I don’t expect to be greeted with chocolates by security officials, but I just don’t encounter the same level of hostility when I arrive in other countries. I always wonder what’s going through the minds of travelers coming to the U.S. for the first time. According to a CNN report, it turns out that many potential visitors may not be coming to the U.S. at all because of just such issues here and at U.S. offices abroad. Overseas travel to the U.S. has dropped 17 percent since 9/11. Travel industry leaders blame the government and are calling for changes. “International travelers will tell you that they find that they are treated like criminals, that they are barked at by U.S. officials,” said Geoffrey Freeman of the Discover America Partnership. “They simply feel unwelcome and that is leading them to choose other countries.”

The report continues:

According to the partnership members, the decline in overseas travel to the United States comes at a time when the travel business is burgeoning internationally. But travelers are choosing to go elsewhere.

Of the 25 countries that were the largest source of visitors to the United States in 2000, 17 sent fewer visitors in 2005, industry officials say. Japan—the United States’ third largest source of visitors after Canada and Mexico—sent 5.1 million travelers to the country in 2000, but only 3.9 million in 2005. Germany sent 1.8 million in 2000, and only 1.4 million in 2005.

The economic impact of declining visits is obvious. But J.W. Marriott, Jr.—yes, that Marriott—points out that visits from overseas travelers have less tangible benefits, too.

“The overall image of this country abroad is extremely important to this nation in every respect,” he said. “People feel good about this country; when they come they feel a lot better. We’ve got to get them coming back.”

And we’ve got to get them through customs without them wanting to turn around and fly back home, too.


8 Comments for Is the U.S. Treating Tourists Like Terrorists?

Julia 02.01.07 | 6:17 PM ET

That’s true! Of course U.S. do all this to protect its citizens, but sometimes such arrangements become really humiliating for visitors…

Jerry Haines 02.01.07 | 6:44 PM ET

At Atlanta, on the first day passports were required for US citizens returning from Mexico, an immigration agent threw an absolute hissy fit at some poor guy who apparently hadn’t gotten the word that his drivers license would no longer suffice.  The agent stormed out of his cubicle for a few minutes (there were several people, including me, waiting in his line), then stormed back and continued to lecture the guy.  Maybe it was the first time that question had come up that day (I don’t think Atlanta gets that many flights from Mexico), but I suspect it was all theater. 

That said, other countries often act unwelcoming, too.  I’d bet that the immigration checkpoints at Phnom Penh’s airport are manned by former Khmer Rouge officers.

Terry Ward 02.02.07 | 10:51 AM ET

I hear you, Jim, about the cold and unwelcoming arrival in America from abroad.

I always feel a little awkward slinking to ‘our’ side when they bellow, “US Citizens, keep right, ALL OTHERS STAY LEFT!!!” just thinking about how the foreigners are going to be ‘welcomed.’

What kills me every time I return home from abroad is how robotic the process is…last time I was going through the x-ray area at Newark the guy was actually yelling, totally monotone, ‘we’re wal-king, we’re wal-king, we’re mo-ving forward people, we’re putting our things on the belt, we’re taking off our shoes, we’re wal-king, we’re wal-king.”

And another time when a European lady didn’t understand the bit about taking off her shoes (you don’t have to do it in most European airports) and handed them to the security person instead of putting them on the belt, the security person humiliated this woman in front of the entire line, screaming “This is AMERICA! We don’t throw our shoes at people in AMERICA!”

I think I was more embarrassed than the poor European tourist.

And the irony of it all, I always think, is those signs at the desks about the code of respect granted to everyone coming into the country. Like Jerry said, I am sure other places are worse…but still, what kind of code of respect lacks common courtesy? It kills me.

Anyway, that was good to vent.

Jim 02.02.07 | 2:49 PM ET

That’s awful, Terry and Jerry. I suppose the arrival process in some countries may be worse, but I haven’t seen it.

Sandra 11.16.07 | 1:40 PM ET

The majority of the world understands terrorism.  We know that the US has to be very cautious, and most of us do not want anything to happen to its citizens.  Whilst we understand strict security at airports, the security personnel are bullies.  Whilst waiting for my mother to come off an internationl flight from Ireland, everyone was walking into the arrivals like robots, ashen faced and terrified.  I heard a few people say that they didn’t mind the security measures taken, just the treatment by the staff.  I met a couple the other day from England who said they would not come back, they were too old to be bullied at airports.  I have to fly overseas to visit family as some won’t come back.  It truly is awful.  I have travelled worldwide and never been spoken to like they do at the airport in JFK like I was myself.  It has to be fixed, train the staff properly and remind them that we are mostly tourists, not criminals being admitted to prison.  It’s disgusting how they bark orders and look at us like we are bugs.  We will take off our shoes, no problem, we will not carry liquids, no problem, USA’s priority is protecting its citizens.  But come on, this is just bad.

Jerry Haines 11.16.07 | 2:44 PM ET

Been through Heathrow lately?  A woman there (in Oct.) was barking orders, making snide remarks about the South Asian passengers who were protesting her highhanded attitude.  I swear, I thought the next thing she would shout would be, “If you don’t eat your meat, you can’t have any pudding!  How can you have any pudding if you don’t eat your meat?”

Henri Van Den Bremt 11.27.07 | 1:49 PM ET

Your Stories reminded me of our trip to Florida last spring.  We entered into the US section of the Ottawa airport and the stonefaced officials greeted us with minimal explanations of what is expected…the shoes off, the wand, the metal detecting gate, etc.  When one border guard asked who was the head of the family and I replied it was me, he snaped his rubber gloves and directed me into a separate cubicle.  I guess I went a bit pale and when he finished frisking me I exhaled and replied “Thank god”.  He quickly asked what i meant about that comment.  I then told him that when he approached with those rubber gloves on and asked me to go aside I was expecting an anal search.  We both had a good laugh and I swear a few of the other officals were working hard to not grin.
I guess I share this story just to remind us that there may be reasons for the cold professional approach, but a human reaction does help to relieve the unpleasent part of air travel in today’s world.

Michelle 12.23.07 | 1:57 PM ET

Funny, I have never had a bad experience with American customs. Returning home to Canada can be much more of the adventure though.

On my latest trip in 2003, flying from Halifax to Boston, the only questioning I really faced was the exact address of where I would be staying in California.

Coming back home, however, was another story. There were a few Americans who got off the red eye flight with me in Halifax. One guy even had a gun case with him. When I first got off the plane, I went to the restroom and when I came out, the other people from the flight were gone. So I was a little surprised when I picked up my suitcases and was told to go wait ‘down there”.

My luggage was eventually thoroughly searched by a rather uptight, cranky Canadian Customs Agent who had lots of questions to ask. “Why was I in the US?” she wanted to know. Remembering the old days, I replied “Pleasure”. Nope. What exactly was I doing there? Visiting friends. Were these friends American? Mostly, but one couple was from the UK. How long had I known these friends? About 6 years. Did I meet them online? Why, yes I had. Were they all female?

Now by this time my poor sleep-deprived brain was starting to wake up. But only starting to. I told her that one person was male and must have given her a bit of a perplexed look. Because she immediately told me that there was no need to be embarassed, it happened all the time. I told her I wasn’t embarassed, just confused by her questions.

And then ‘Ding, Ding’ .. the bells went off and the lights came on. Boy, had she went down the wrong road! I started laughing and told her that no, I had a daughter with seizures on a special diet and had met a group of moms online whose children had the same condition. And finally after six years of corresponding, some of us manged to get together.

Talk about an attitude change… she immediately asked if my family was waiting for me (Yes, they were). Well I am sure that my socks, underwear and the $10 T-shirts I had bought for the kids appreicated being finally left alone. She quickly repacked my suitcase, told me to have a nice day and sent me on my way.

I have always found that it has been harder to get through Canadian Customs though. And to think that I live here. And actually pay their salaries. Its probably a good thing I was half asleep and stunned through most of that latter incident or I most likely would have told her that I would be happy to answer her questions ... if she could show me by what authority I had to. THAT no doubt would have resulted in extending that four day trip by another five or six hours.

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