Balance of security, tourism touted

WASHINGTON — The United States could be more welcoming to international visitors without compromising border safeguards, former anti-terrorism chief Tom Ridge said Friday.

When Ridge headed the Department of Homeland Security from 2001 to 2004, he oversaw a range of security measures to tighten U.S. borders after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorists attacks.

“The infrastructure we built after 9/11 is appropriate, but we just have to make some adjustments within that infrastructure,” Ridge said.

Ridge spoke on the release of a study commissioned by the Discover America Partnership that said a decline in international travelers could be reversed by making it easier for them to gain documents and to get through customs.

The former federal official, who also was Pennsylvania governor, is a consultant to the partnership, a business coalition established in 2006 to advance foreign travel in the United States.

International tourism to the country fell 17 percent since 2000, despite travel increasing worldwide, the group said.

Ridge called for more customs officials to be stationed at airports, and for stepped up U.S. tourism marketing around the globe to combat negative perceptions.

He said worldwide opinion of the United States will worsen as long as most international travelers are treated as potential threats.

“If we turn inward and ignore those forces then we certainly won’t be the country we want to be in the future,” he said.

Improvements could be funded by a $10 entry fee to be collected by airlines on visitors from countries that have preferred travel relationships with the United States.

There are 27 so-called visa waiver countries, whose citizens are allowed to enter freely without background checks or waiting periods. Great Britain, Japan, France, Norway and other U.S. allies are on the list.

The study, conducted by Tourism Economics, a marketing firm, found that the $10 fee would generate $200 million over three years. Visitors from nonvisa waiver nations already are charged $100. Their fee would not increase.

Ridge recommended 10 more countries be added to the Visa Waiver Program.

The changes would add 1.6 million new visitors each year and generate $8 billion in spending and $850 million in tax revenue, according to the study.

Ridge unveiled the study at a news conference, then addressed congressional staff members on Capitol Hill. Ridge urged the aides to recommend their bosses reject polices that deter overseas visitors from entering the country.

He said U.S. officials should make it easier for travelers to obtain visas by shortening waiting periods to 30 days or less. He recommended that visa interviews in overseas nations be conducted by video hookups instead of making applicants travel often long distances to U.S. embassies or consulates.

U.S. Rep. Jon Porter, R-Nev., a co-chairman of the Congressional Travel and Tourism Caucus, embraced the recommendations.

“The security of our country is our first line of defense,” Porter said. “But it is also our welcome mat.”

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