- The Washington Times - Thursday, December 21, 2006

Former Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge has signed up with a travel industry lobby group to prepare a package of “big and bold” reforms to U.S. visa and border rules to make it easier for global travelers to visit the country.

The package, covering changes to the U.S. visa process and procedures at ports of entry, will also recommend a major public-relations campaign promoting the changes, said Geoff Freeman, executive director of the Discover America Partnership.

“We will be working with Gov. Ridge to develop a package of big and bold ideas” for release in January, said Mr. Freeman, declining to go into detail.

The Discover America Partnership inked a deal with Mr. Ridge this week “to evaluate the U.S. entry process and propose strategies for striking a better balance between secure borders and open doors” than the current visa and border control regime does, the group said.

The news drew a wary response from border security advocates, but Mr. Freeman said the changes were needed to counter a looming crisis in the perceptions of global travelers about visiting the United States.

He cited a recent study commissioned by the group of 2,000-plus randomly selected long-haul international travelers from 16 countries. The survey found that the U.S. was ranked the worst destination “when it comes to being traveler-friendly in terms of obtaining necessary documents or visas, and having immigration officials who are respectful toward foreign visitors.”

More than a third of respondents — 39 percent — ranked the United States worst, said Thomas Riehle, a partner in RT Strategies, which conducted the online survey. The next most traveler-unfriendly destination was the Middle East and Central and South Asia region, listed worst by just 16 percent.

Mr. Freeman said the survey showed a looming — and avoidable — crisis in perceptions of the U.S. that was going to cost the U.S. economy dear.

“We are losing hundreds of thousands of potential visitors,” he said.

But he said recent statements by President Bush and legislative moves by Congress were encouraging.

Michael Cutler, a retired federal immigration agent and a fellow at the Center for Immigration Studies, which advocates a tighter immigration and border regime, said the travel industry was “prioritizing profits over national security” in calling for a relaxation of border and visa controls.

Mr. Cutler, a passionate advocate of tighter security who has testified before Congress said he was “disappointed but not surprised” by Mr. Ridge’s decision to sign up with the lobby group.

“Follow the money,” he said. “If the goal is to open up our borders by expanding the Visa Waiver Program” and similar measures, “that is perilous.”

Mr. Ridge was not available for comment yesterday, representatives said.

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