As an immigrant, I've always loved Thanksgiving for all the corniest reasons. It's a distinctly American holiday, secular and inclusive, focused on food, family and gratitude. But the one Thanksgiving tradition I try strenuously to avoid is travel. For those of you who must do it—and that's 27 million people this year—brace yourselves for massive delays and frayed tempers. President Bush announced a few measures to ease congestion, describing this week as "a season of dread for too many Americans." I only wish he would keep in mind that for foreigners now traveling to America, the dread is far more acute, and it's lasted far longer than a few days in November.
Every American who has a friend abroad has heard some story about the absurd hassle and humiliation of entering or exiting the United States. But these pale in comparison to the experience of foreigners who commit minor infractions. A tourist from New Zealand, Rick Giles, mistakenly overstayed his visa in America by a few days and found himself summarily arrested for six weeks earlier this fall. Treaty obligations say his country's embassy should have been informed of the arrest, but it wasn't. A German visitor, Valeria Vinnikova, overstayed her visa by a couple of days and tried to remedy the situation—so that she could spend more time with her fiancé, the Dartmouth College squash coach. Instead she was handcuffed and had her feet shackled, then was carted off to be imprisoned. She now faces deportation and a 10-year ban on entering the United States. (Thanks to AndrewSullivan.com for drawing attention to these.)
According to the Commerce Department, the United States is the only major country in the world to which travel has declined in the midst of a global tourism boom. And this is not about Arabs or Muslims. The number of Japanese visiting the United States declined from 5 million in 2000 to 3.6 million last year. The numbers have begun to increase, but by 2010 they're still projected to be 19 percent below 2000 levels. During this same span (2000–2010), global tourism is expected to grow by 44 percent.
The most striking statistic involves tourists from Great Britain. These are people from America's closest ally, the overwhelming majority of them white Anglos with names like Smith and Jones. For Brits, the United States these days is Filene's Basement. The pound is worth $2, a 47 percent increase in six years. And yet, between 2000 and 2006, the number of Britons visiting America declined by 11 percent. In that same period British travel to India went up 102 percent, to New Zealand 106 percent, to Turkey 82 percent and to the Caribbean 31 percent. If you're wondering why, read the polls or any travelogue on a British Web site. They are filled with horror stories about the inconvenience and indignity of traveling to America.
For many, the trials begin even before they arrive. In a world of expedited travel, getting a visa to enter the United States has become a laborious process. It takes, on average, 69 days in Mumbai, 65 days in São Paolo and 44 days in Shanghai simply to process a request. It's no wonder that quick business trips to America are a thing of the past. Business travel to the United States declined by 10 percent between 2004 and 2005 (the most recent data available), while similar travel to Europe increased by 8 percent. Discover America, a travel-industry-funded organization that tries to boost tourism, estimates that the 17 percent overall decline in tourism since 9/11 has cost America $94 billion in lost tourist spending, 200,000 jobs and $16 billion in tax revenues.
The administration and Congress say the right things, have passed a few measures to improve matters and keep insisting that the problem has been solved. But the data and loads of anecdotal evidence suggest otherwise. The basic problem remains: no bureaucrat wants to be the person who lets in the next terrorist. As a result, when one spots any irregularity—no matter how minor—the reflex is to stop, question, harass, arrest and deport. If tens of thousands of foreigners are upset, so what? But if one day a jihadist manages to slip in, woe to the person who stamped his passport. The incentives are badly skewed.
In his 2003 book "Courage Matters," Sen. John McCain writes, "Get on the damn elevator! Fly on the damn plane! Calculate the odds of being harmed by a terrorist. It's still about as likely as being swept out to sea by a tidal wave." He added what seemed like a sound rule of thumb: "Watch the terrorist alert and when it falls below yellow, go outside again."
Except that since 9/11, the alert has never dropped below yellow (which means an "elevated" level of risk from a terrorist attack). At airports, we have been almost permanently at orange—"high risk," or the second highest level of alertness. Yet the Department of Homeland Security admits that "there continues to be no credible information at this time warning of an imminent threat to the homeland." The department's "strategic threat perspective … is that we are in a period of increased risk." What is this "strategic perspective?" Is it the same as the "gut feeling" that Secretary Michael Chertoff cited when he warned, in July, that we were likely to be attacked during the summer? Or is it a bureaucratic mind-set, the technical term for which is CYA?