Long customs lines drive foreigners to other countries

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Politics,Paul Bedard,Washington Secrets

"Embarrassingly" long customs lines are pushing foreign visitors to other nations, and if Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano can't fix the problem the travel industry will suffer a $95 billion hit and be forced to dump 518,900 jobs, according to the U.S. Travel Association.

"Too many visitors to our country -- one in three -- report that they have experienced a customs process that they believe is inconsistent, confusing or embarrassing," said Roger Dow, the association's president. "As the United States spends millions to recapture the world's interest and inspire international travelers to visit, we are failing to address a galling entry experience that is driving 43 percent of our guests to tell others to avoid travel to our country."

Unfortunately, the three-hour lines many visitors face might get longer under sequestration, according to Napolitano.

The association's survey of 1,200 travelers, conducted by Consensus Research Group, found that the administration's push to lure more vacationers and business people from overseas appears to be a dud because visitors don't want to wait in line and they can find other destinations just as interesting and easier to enter.

"Two in three travelers surveyed said that eliminating long lines and wait times was their top priority for making the United States a more attractive travel destination," said Dow's group. The association calculates that hiring another 1,000 U.S. Customs and Border Patrol officers, at a cost of $150 million, could cut wait times to 30 minutes and boost new visitor spending in the United States.

The statistics it provided to Secrets on Tuesday are devastating:

» Forty-three percent of travelers who have visited say they will recommend to others to avoid a trip to the United States because of the entry process.

» Visitors to the United States report that they tell on average eight others about their travel experiences -- good or bad -- creating a multiplying effect to the potential impact of their experiences.

» One in three travelers thought the United States is "falling behind other countries" or was even the "worst" they have ever seen in their customs process.

» Forty-four percent of business travelers say that they will not visit in the next five years because of the entry process.

» Two-thirds of travelers said the United States would be a more attractive destination if customs lines and wait times were shorter.