How the USA Screws Itself with Foreign Tourists

Filed under: Florida News,Orlando News |

Over the past weekend my family had some dear friends from the United Kingdom around for dinner and one of the topics of conversation was their recent trips to various parts of the globe. The lucky devils have been all over the globe in recent months with trips to Australia, New Zealand, Dubai, Europe, Mexico and finally to their Florida home. During our conversation we talked about all the things they had seen and the good times they had. Unfortunately though, their recent experience in visiting Florida was tainted. For one reason, the arrival process and going through immigration in particular.

The one thing that really stood out for me was their comment about how most people would have had to wait over two hours. They remarked that they had been extremely lucky to get nearer the front of the line but even that was over an hour wait to get through with just seven immigration desks open to cater for at least three international plane loads of travelers from the UK …around 1200 people in total. Frankly, is it any wonder that visitor numbers from the UK are declining when faced with this after an eight or nine hour flight? I know I would certainly think twice about returning.

I have to say that I have been aware of this issue for some time. I’ve contacted various people in an effort to find out what is going on and the best answer I have obtained has been that the delay is a Federal issue because of the problem with recruiting and training Customs Officers. Apparently, it is a three year process to train these people…but even if that is the case, why do most people face delays at the immigration desks? It doesn’t make sense.

Why is it that I constantly hear from our friends and guests that they had to endure huge lines when they got off their plane? Why is it that these people have to endure a two hour plus wait to get into the country? Why is it that these people aren’t made welcome when they arrive? Why are there no seats for them to rest on when they disembark? Why are there no beverages or snacks available? What message are we really sending here? Seems to me the answer is that “We don’t really want you.”

I don’t know what it is with America at the moment. Still suffering from an economic depression don’t they realize that tourism brings money to the economy? Money that is then used to employ people, that is used by employees to feed their families, money that is usually taxed that Government then benefits from. How is it that the powers that be are making life so difficult for travelers that they choose another option instead of coming back to the Sunshine State? Something stinks and the excuses have to stop.

Over the last few years Visit Florida has consistently reported that travel from the UK is slipping. From being the top foreign supplier of guests to Florida, the UK has now slipped  down the list with Canada now coming in first and Brazil second. Heck, even Mexico and Japan are bring in higher visitor numbers some months. So why aren’t the Brits visiting anymore?

It’s quite simple. They can get better value and less hassle elsewhere.

Let’s face it, if you’re told you have to get an ESTA document, an international drivers license (thankfully, that farce disappeared as quick as it came) and then face over a two hour wait before you get into the country, you’re not really going to look forward to the experience are you? No amount of happiness and fun at our world class theme parks like Walt Disney World, Universal Orlando or SeaWorld is going to overcome that first bad experience when you first arrive. Frankly, I don’t know many people who enjoy an eight or nine hour flight with screaming kids and aging parents so why in the world would you put yourself through this when on holiday or vacation? I know I wouldn’t and, I won’t.

So, what’s being done to help? Not enough is all I can say. Recently I received a press release talking about the so called Automated Passport Control (APC) system. In theory, Orlando International Airport will be the first airport in the nation to test the self-service kiosks to expedite the international arrival process and reduce passenger processing times with Customs and Border Protection (CBP) and the new system is expected to be in place by this summer.

The self-service kiosk technology will partially automate the inspection process for non-U.S. citizens entering the United States. Later this year, the program will expand in Orlando to add U.S. citizens as well. According to Customs and Border Protection, the primary objective of the technology is to increase the productivity of its resources by moving much of the mundane but necessary data collection duties to the passenger while they wait in queue. The self-processing kiosks will collect the passengers’ passport and flight information, declaration data, scan fingerprints, take a photo and issue a receipt to the passenger. The passenger then brings their passport and receipt to a CBP officer for verification. This program does not require passengers to register in advance. It will be available to all international passengers arriving at Orlando International Airport.

So that’s it. And we’ll see. But, if past efforts are anything to go by, don’t hold your breath that this will be much of an improvement. You’d think that after booking a flight, checking in at the airport and then enduring the 8 to 9 hour flight that the USA would know who intends to come into their country wouldn’t you? Well, note the word “partially” automate the process. Yes, that’s the worrying word because you’re still going to need to present yourself to an immigration officer for final approval. And we all know what fun that can bring depending on that guy or girls mood on any given day. Frankly, I’m not impressed. And, I’m not impressed with the increasing reports I get about these representatives of the United States being rude, ignorant and arrogant with our foreign guests.

Forgive me here for my healthy skepticism. In part it comes from the next section of the press release I quote here… “In April, Orlando International became the first airport in the nation to collaborate with the CBP to automate the I-94 documentation for entry into the United States. The introduction of that program has also helped to reduce wait times and streamline the arrival process for international passengers.”  Did I just read “reduce wait times?” Who’s kidding who here? Wait times haven’t reduced at all, in fact they seem to be on the increase.

The press release then goes on “Orlando International processed a record 3.7 million international passengers in 2012 and so far this year is recording double-digit growth of 10.8 percent.” OK, I get that brings its own problems…but… only seven immigration officers on desks when passengers arrive? This is worse than when I first started coming to the US in the 90’s. Far worse. Then you would see 15 to 20 immigration officers on the desks and while there was some delay getting through immigration, it was nowhere near as bad as it is today. For that, someone should be held accountable. Someone should be asked by the people running businesses in Florida and by those employed in tourism, “Why is this happening? How is it helping our community?”

Last week a UK TV program essentially told viewers not to travel to Florida because of all the hassle and today I came across this article in The Independent newspaper. It’s not pretty reading…

Time for some folks in leadership positions in Florida and the United States to wake up. Failing to address these issues is hurting our economy.




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