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The United States must more effectively reconcile its need to enhance security and its desire to welcome foreign travelers or it will be unable to take advantage of growing global mobility and an increasingly international economy in which U.S. multinational companies play a key role. Discussed in a report issued this month by a committee appointed by the U.S. departments of Homeland Security and State, that challenge may be met if the U.S. government follows up on many of 44 recommendations related to public diplomacy, visa policies and ports of entry.
Created in December 2006 and comprised of representatives from academia, the private sector and nongovernmental organizations, the Secure Borders and Open Doors Committee was convened, in part, to reverse the decline in overseas travelers to the United States--down 17 percent from 2000 to 2006.
"Traveling to the United States is becoming viewed as, at least, an uncertain, potentially unpleasant experience and, at worst, a major hassle," according to the committee's report.
The report cited confusion, frustration and data privacy concerns from "a plethora" of new U.S. travel security programs, including new passport requirements; the Advanced Passenger Information System; collection of data from passenger name records; fingerprints and digital photos upon arrival for many foreign visitors; and the Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative.
The committee said U.S. officials also must take "great care" in implementing new security initiatives, including a plan by U.S. Customs and Border Protection to start collecting pre-departure APIS data in February, an electronic travel authorization system attached to the Visa Waiver Program, the Secure Flight program proposed by the Transportation Security Administrationand, planned for December 2008, the DHS U.S. Visit Exit system, "an entirely new process that most departing foreign visitors will have to complete," including providing fingerprints at check in.
To help offset the inconveniences presented by all such programs, the committee said DHS should start an international registered travel pilot program "as soon as possible" at Houston George Bush Intercontinental, Washington Dulles and New York JFK airports, and "promptly" expand it to the 20 largest international airports. The report noted that the British, Dutch and German governments successfully implemented such a program, while officials in Dubai and Hong Kong have shown progress along similar lines.
The report also suggested that CBP address airport staffing shortages, which lead to long wait times and the inability for airlines to schedule new international flights, and "undermine the U.S. international policy goal of expanding air service and the economic growth that comes with it."
Other suggestions for ports of entry include eliminating "redundant" re-screening of baggage and passengers arriving from international flights and connecting to domestic ones, and reducing the average amount of time CBP officers spend with each traveler to "less than pre-Sept. 11 levels."
In the area of visas for foreign nationals, the committee said the United States is plagued by insufficient visa officers and consulate locations (future shortfalls "are guaranteed to be greater than today," according to the report); a complicated "division of authority" for the visa process, which prevents development of a "joint business traveler facilitation program"; inconsistent information on consular Web sites; and other problems.
The committee said the existing screening processes, particularly for short-term business travelers, are "unnecessarily unpredictable, duplicative and complex."
"U.S. businesses report that many meetings are now held in Europe instead of the United States because of the greater certainty of and, often, shorter wait times associated with the European visa processes," the report stated. "Rising demand from major developing countries--especially India, China, Mexico, and Brazil--if present practices and trends continue, cannot be met and is already creating slow processing times."
To help resolve these issues, the committee suggested that, for starters, the United States properly train and manage consular personnel: "For many foreign visitors, the first American they meet will be the consular officer who adjudicates their visa application. Consular officers' skills, judgment and courtesy therefore have a powerful influence on American interests."
In addition, the committee suggested the United States generally "accord more prominence and resources for the visa system" and specifically:
In terms of public diplomacy and international outreach, the report highlighted the role that Corporate America can play. "In many countries, global companies are viewed as more credible messengers than the U.S. government," the committee said. Moreover, as many as 6 million of the 9 million people employed by U.S. companies in other countries "are local nationals who are sensitive to local cultures and social mores. U.S. companies--especially multinationals heavily dependent on foreign markets--have learned how to excel across cultures and borders."
As such, the U.S. government should seek support from businesses (including airlines and airports) to build a promotional communications campaign, disseminate information on changes to entry requirements and find ways to use technology for streamlining the visa process.
The report also noted that the Discover AmericaWeb site--the "official travel and tourism Web site of the United States" developed by the U.S. Department of Commerce and the Travel Industry Association--is scheduled for launch this year, initially in Canada, Germany, Japan, Mexico and the United Kingdom. It will present information on a variety of topics, including lodging and transportation, and provide "up-to-date information on entry documentation requirements and the arrivals inspection process."
Meanwhile, the committee stressed the importance of measuring and benchmarking the effectiveness of all traveler screening, visa and entry processes, harmonizing security efforts to uncover new efficiencies and sharing best practices among all participating agencies. Many of the its recommendations can be implemented by the U.S. administration, but some may require Congressional funding and/or legislative changes.
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