A global economic downturn, combined with confirmed cases of swine flu, has hurt the reputations of numerous countries, including America’s. Fortunately for other countries, however, they weren’t also facing harsh criticisms over complex visa processes, impolite customs officials and inconsiderate citizens traveling abroad. While America still represents some of the world’s most loved brands, including Coke, McDonald’s and Sony, its reputation has taken quite a hit in the past 10 years or so. It has been marred not just by foreigners who have had bad experiences at America’s airports and borders, but also by Americans who travel overseas and don’t seem to appreciate another culture’s way of life. Both of these groups of travelers have affected a third group: foreigners who have neither traveled to America nor had any interactions with Americans. Many people in this group still perceive the country and its people as negative because of what they hear from traveling friends and colleagues and the portrayals they see in the foreign media.
“People who have never been here have a negative impression of us,” said Thomas Miller, vice president of Business for Diplomatic Action, a non-profit that educates the private sector on ways it can foster public diplomacy and mutual understanding among different countries through business-focused initiatives. “But we also know that [aside from experiences with customs officials] people who visit America are generally more favorably disposed toward our country. They form generally positive impressions of us based on their experiences.”
So how does America ensure that a majority of the globe maintains a positive impression of it? It enlists the help of the federal government and international business travelers to further diplomacy because, as Miller likes to say, “Travel is diplomacy by another name.”
Improving the Treatment of Foreign Travelers
Being that the dollar has been weak for some time now, one would logically think that this country would be flooded with Europeans looking to take advantage of a good deal. Not so, however. Despite the generally positive impression that many foreigners have of the country, its culture and its people once they’ve visited, the global downturn and strict entrance requirements have travelers actually avoiding America. In 2006, RT Strategies conducted a survey of foreign travelers to gauge the global perception of America and the likelihood of foreign travelers to visit the country. One dreary find was that travelers believed America had the worst entry process in the world by a margin of two-to-one. The study also found that the additional screening procedures that were implemented after 9/11 have created resentment among many foreign visitors who viewed customs officials as “rude” and feared unnecessary detainment.
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In fact, 54 percent of international travelers surveyed used that exact word to describe the country’s immigration officials, while 67 percent feared they would be detained if they made a mistake on their paperwork or accidentally said the wrong thing. Compounding these problems is the tedious visa application process, which can greatly affect business travel. Everyone in the family must be interviewed before visas are granted, and the application fee is non-refundable if a member gets denied. “We’re the only country I know of that if your visa’s refused you don’t get your money back,” Miller said. “It’s $130 for a visa application and you don’t get that money back if you’re refused. That’s a lot of money for a lot of people, so that’s a big deal. Then, when people actually do get their visas and hop on a plane and come to us our customs officials and border patrol agents are perceived to be very rude and our entry procedures are perceived to be very intimidating… international travelers consider us to have the world’s worst entry system.”
Doing the Math
The same year that the RT Strategies study was conducted, business travel to the U.S. fell by 10 percent, according to the U.S. Travel Association. Last year wasn’t much better. In 2008 the U.S. had 633,000 fewer foreign travelers than it did in 2000. The association projected that this caused the country to lose out on $182 billion in spending, $27 billion in taxes and the creation of 245,000 jobs, which could have been accrued if America had kept pace with the average rate of growth in global overseas travel. Naturally, this year is not shaping up to be a winner, either. The association believes America will lose another 450,000 travel industry jobs between 2008 and 2009, while the Commerce Department predicts that the industry will decline another 8 percent this year.
All is Not Lost
While the country may look down, it is not out. Organizations like the U.S. Travel Association and Business for Diplomatic Action have urged the federal government to reform America’s entry process. Their efforts were recently met with success when the US Senate Commerce Committee passed the Travel Promotion Act of 2009 on May 21. The act will pump $200 million into attracting foreign visitors and improving the ways in which the U.S. communicates its entrance requirements to foreigners.
Miller noted that this is a huge step for the government, which, according to him, has not historically been very receptive to spending money to attract foreign travelers. “We’re the only developed country in the world that doesn’t have a ministry of tourism,” he said. “The federal government [previously] spent no money to persuade foreigners that this is a place to come visit. Lots of policies need to be addressed to make America seem like a more marketable place.”
Though the Travel Promotion Act of 2009 is a great first step in the right direction, it is merely the beginning of the marathon, according to Miller. He believed the private sector must also do its part when traveling overseas to break down negative stereotypes. By respecting local customs and fostering a hospitable atmosphere when abroad, Miller thinks that the American business culture can once again bring not just tourists and tourism dollars to the country, but profitable business deals back here as well. “How people think about us and perceive our image and reputation will influence their decisions on whether to come over here on vacation or business,” he said. “It has direct implications for jobs, tax revenues, the hospitality industry, and overall spending in leisure and recreation areas.”
Becoming an expert in public diplomacy and international relations may seem like daunting tasks, but Miller assured that it’s much easier than it sounds. Adopting the manta of “When in Rome” while traveling abroad can do wonders when it comes to creating a positive reputation, as can participating in a number of organizations that promote positive global relations. “Getting involved in organizations in your local community that have international connections is great,” he said. “The International Visitors Councils, Sister Cities International, Rotary Club – these types of organizations all have global links and programs that can help business owners…contribute to positive impressions, stay in touch with foreign contacts and get the information they may need for future travel opportunities.” An added benefit of fostering international relations within the global business community is that you never know when your fellow Rotary Club member may introduce you to the next big investment opportunity.