- The Washington Times - Thursday, June 10, 2004

The U.S. travel industry is concerned about the impact of new border and transportation security arrangements on tourism to the United States, saying it threatens the $81 billion dollar industry.

Delegates at a conference in Washington yesterday left speakers from the Department of Homeland Security in little doubt about their feelings. Several who were critical of the impact of new security measures and the department’s outreach to the travel industry were greeted with applause.

“There’s a lot of frustration out there,” said Theresa Cardinal Brown, director of immigration policy at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

“It’s not just that we haven’t got the balance right between making the United States secure and making it welcoming,” Miss Brown said. “There isn’t even a consensus on where the balance should be yet. Everyone has their own ideas about that.”

At the center of industry concerns is U.S.-VISIT, the new system for biometrically confirming the identities of all visa holders entering the United States. As immigration officials check their travel documents, arrivals are digitally photographed and fingerprinted, a process that officials say takes an average of 15 seconds.

The system was rolled out at airports and several major seaports Jan. 1 and has worked well so far, travel executives say, although they cite some reports of long delays in immigration lines. But the industry remains concerned about the summer travel season.

“We’re a bargain at the moment,” said Rick Webster, government affairs director for the Travel Industry Association of America, adding that low air fares are “masking a lot of the problems. People will put up with hassle and inconvenience because it is cheap to come here.”

Mr. Webster said concern is heightened by the fact that on Sept. 30, the 13.5 million visitors each year who enter the United States under the Visa Waiver Program will be required to undergo U.S.-VISIT procedures. That will almost double the numbers the system has to cope with overnight.

“That volume is going to create a lot of challenges” for the department,” he said. “Most importantly, have they got enough inspectors?”

The issue of sufficient staff to process arrivals is complicated by the fact that the department is under a hiring freeze imposed after serious weaknesses were discovered in internal accounting mechanisms.

Homeland security officials sought to reassure the industry that their concerns were taken seriously.

“We understand the issue,” said Jim Williams, director of the U.S.-VISIT program office at the Department of Homeland Security. “If you have problems, we want to hear about them.”

He added, however, that “travelers are happy with the system, because it makes them feel secure.”

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