Security focus driving away foreign tourists, former DHS chief says

The government needs to strike a new balance between having security while welcoming travelers and tourists, Tom Ridge says.

Backed by the travel and tourism industry, former Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge said Friday that the federal government needs to adjust its policies for attracting visitors to the United States, acknowledging that some security programs put in place by Congress and the Bush administration after 9/11 have created a negative backlash around the world.

Ridge, who was responsible for implementing security programs as the nation's first Homeland Security secretary, said the government needs to strike a new balance between having security while welcoming travelers and tourists.

"I'm saying right after 9/11 the Congress and the administration rightly focused primarily on security and we made significant adjustments in policy and protocol," Ridge said in an interview on Capitol Hill. "Now I think it's time, after five years of experience, we've seen where some of it worked and some of it hasn't worked. Clearly in some areas where it hasn't worked it has created a misimpression that we aren't welcoming."

He added, "The perception may be accurate, it may be inaccurate, but there is that perception, so let's adjust the adjustments and dust off the welcome mat." He noted, for example, the difficulty the State Department has faced in meeting a congressional requirement that all prospective travelers to the United States have to be interviewed within 30 days of applying for visas.

"I'm not sure we anticipated the public relations problems that would be associated with the perception that has been created, particularly because of the delays in the visa process now that everybody has to be interviewed," Ridge said.

Ridge and the Discover America Partnership on Friday released a study concluding that a slight $10 increase in fees that foreigners pay to come to the United States could generate $200 million a year over the first three years for U.S. government public relations and security programs. The partnership is comprised of top industry officials such as the presidents of Walt Disney Parks and Resorts, the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority and American Express. It describes itself as "an aggressive, Washington, D.C.-based, advocacy campaign designed to educate policymakers on the power of travel."

During a news conference at the National Press Club, Ridge and officials from the partnership cited a recent industry-backed survey that concluded travel to the United States has declined 17 percent since 2001, costing the United States more than $100 billion in lost visitor spending, about 200,000 jobs and $16 billion in lost tax receipts.

They called on Congress to expand the Visa Waiver Program to other countries, making it easier for their citizens to travel to the United States. They said half the $200 million in new funds could be put toward developing an international travel promotion campaign, while the rest could be allocated to help the Homeland Security and State departments better implement security and travel programs, including hiring more Customs and Border Patrol officers. Ridge said he believes the private sector would match the funding.