U.S. Sen. Harry Reid said Wednesday that he plans to write a letter to Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano and ask her to tell airport security workers to be nicer to international travelers.
"She can instruct everybody that works at TSA to smile and say, 'Hello,' " Reid said of Transportation Security Administration employees who have a reputation for giving travelers a hard time.
It's a small, friendly gesture, but Reid said he learned during a private meeting with Nevada gaming, business and tourism leaders that international travelers often complain about their treatment by U.S. workers, whether at security gates or while applying for tourist visas that can take six months to get.
"People who work for our government have to be able to do it with a smile on their face," he said.
Reid's comments came at a news conference after a 90-minute strategy session led by Interior Secretary Ken Salazar. The secretary met with several dozen Southern Nevada leaders to discuss ways to boost travel and tourism in the region and in the United States. Gov. Brian Sandoval also attended.
In January, President Barack Obama launched an initiative to increase tourism by making it easier for international travelers to visit the United States. He wants to speed up visa processing in countries such as China and Brazil and waive visas for people from more countries that aren't high security risks.
The goal is to boost the U.S. economy and create thousands of jobs by welcoming more international travelers, who usually stay longer and spend more money than domestic tourists.
Last year, Salazar said, 62 million international visitors came to the United States, adding $153 billion to the U.S. economy. In Southern Nevada, the region is growing more dependent on international travelers, including Chinese gamblers who spend millions on the Strip.
Salazar, Reid and Nevada business and tourism leaders talked about expanding the lure of Southern Nevada by promoting off-Strip sights such as Hoover Dam, Red Rock Canyon, Great Basin National Park, the state's wilderness areas and the Grand Canyon in Arizona.
"This is perhaps the best place to demonstrate what we can do with tourism in this country," Salazar said. "We know that Nevada is a comeback state and its best days are still ahead."
Nevada has the highest unemployment rate in the nation at 12.3 percent and the highest home foreclosure rate.
In March, Salazar said the Commerce Department reported that international and domestic tourism spending increased 8.1 percent in 2011, which supported an additional 103,000 jobs.
Reid noted he backed legislation that set up a $150 million fund to promote the United States overseas as an international travel destination.
Las Vegas businessman Steve Cloobeck, as chairman of BrandUSA, is leading a public-private effort to boost international tourism. He took part in the meeting.
Jay Barrett Jr., the incoming chairman of the Las Vegas Chamber of Commerce, said tourism accounts for 300,000 jobs in Nevada and adds $40 billion a year to the economy here. The Las Vegas goal is to increase international visitors from 20 percent to 30 percent of all tourists.
The meeting at Springs Preserve in Las Vegas was billed as a "town hall," although reporters weren't allowed into the room to cover it.
"It was important to have a very open conversation," Salazar told reporters when asked why the government would ban media from the session. "I heard a lot of good, frank and candid comments."
Inside the meeting, some gaming leaders told Salazar it takes too long and is too difficult for international travelers to get tourist visas to visit Southern Nevada, according to people involved in the discussion. Foreign visitors also complain about ill treatment they receive from the TSA, a post-9/11 agency charged with preventing terrorist attacks and security threats.
"They're getting feedback from their international guests that the attitude of TSA when it comes to international visitors isn't what it should be," one meeting participant said. "We probably need to be thinking about the total guest experience, to make it more welcoming from the moment a person applies for a visa to how they're treated when they get off the plane and go through customs."
Salazar asked participants in the meeting to provide written suggestions for ways to improve international tourism and travel by April 15 so that he could include the ideas in a report to Obama.