Hundreds of travel industry executives head to Capitol Hill Thursday to lobby for changes in the way the U.S. promotes itself abroad with the aim of reversing a sharp drop off in foreign tourists since Sept. 11, 2001.
The Discover American Partnership - created last year by leaders of the travel industry, including Walt Disney Parks and Resorts and Marriott - says that security measures imposed after the 2001 terrorist attacks have discouraged foreigners from visiting the U.S., causing a 17 percent decline in inbound travel.
One reason, the group says, is that travelers think America sends an unfriendly message when it comes to crossing the border or obtaining a visa. So, who better to enlist in their campaign for change that Tom Ridge, the man who once ran the agency that handles border security.
"People I think have a sense that they're not quite as welcome in America as they were on September 10th, 2001, and that's the furthest thing from the truth," Ridge told NPR. "So we have to dust off the welcoming mat and we just have to promote America."
Ridge was the nation's first Homeland Security secretary, heading the agency until 2005. Now, he's been hired by the travel industry to help speed up visa applications for foreigners and make other changes that encourage travel. Ridge said he will not apologize for all the security measures put in place after Sept. 11, 2001, but acknowledges that "not all of them are being as effectively communicated … (or) as effectively administered as I would like."
"But there's no inconsistency between adding … additional security and trying to stay as connected as possible to the rest of the world," he adds.
That's the message hundreds of travel industry representatives want to convey this week as they gather in Washington. They are trying to get Congress to approve a $200 million a year campaign to promote travel to the U.S., something that is not being done now.
Jay Rasulo, chairman of Walt Disney Parks and Resorts, said that while surveys show that foreigners understand the need for security, what they do not understand is why it can't be done "efficiently and in a welcoming and friendly way."
So the industry has pushed for more customs agents at the 20 largest airports, to help smooth the process. Experts from Disney and Universal Orlando are working with the government to make the experience more pleasant as well - things as simple as a friendly hello.
The industry is clearly pouring tons of money into the campaign, although it will not say how much.
Michael Cutler, a security expert at the Center for Immigration Studies, thinks things have gone too far. He is especially concerned about a new, industry-backed law that would expand the number of countries whose citizens don't need visas to enter the U.S.
"The visa requirement, I think, is a critical link in the chain of security," Cutler said.
He believes it provides a good first-check overseas of who's trying to visit the United States. If anything, he said, the number of countries whose citizens do not need visas - now 27, mostly European nations - should be reduced.
"What I find remarkable is that as American citizens, we take our shoes off before we get on board an airplane and do these other things because Richard Reid was the shoe bomber," Cutler said. "In point of fact … he was able to get on board that airplane without first applying for a visa" because he was a British citizen.
Cutler thinks travel executives are more concerned about profits than security, although they deny that.
Tom Ridge notes that the group he represents would only advocate waiving the visa requirement if other security measures were imposed.