Patricia Roajs-Ungar, Vice President of Government Relations for the U.S. Travel Association
BY JOAN WHITELY -- One in seven foreign travelers to the United States misses a connecting flight due to long waits at Customs at the airport of entry, the U.S. Travel Association has found. That initial delay trickles down through the rest of the visitor’s trip in the form of cancelled car rentals, or missed reservations for hotel nights, shows or restaurants. That in turn means less visitor spending.
One in three arriving foreigners has described undergoing a Customs process that is inefficient, inconsistent or confusing, according to results of the recent survey of 1,200 foreigners, who were interviewed in early summer, just after clearing Customs at “gateway” airports around the country.
The reason for the long lines?
“Not enough Customs & Border Protection officials,” said Patricia Rojas-Ungar, who is vice president of government relations for the association. She said the survey showed international visitors are dismayed when they may see up to 50 booths for Customs processing at an airport, with only 20 of them staffed.
Sequestration of federal funds to pay for Customs officers is just part of the reason for low staffing. The main cause, according to Rojas-Ungar, is Congress’ failure to recognize the impact of long lines on visitor satisfaction. “Over the last decade, we’ve not seen an increase in officers at our airports of entry, while we have seen an increase in visitation.”
Foreign travelers are known to spend an average $4,300 per visit once they arrive, she added.
Visitors disgruntled by a long hang-up at the airport don’t just spend less in the U.S. than if their leisure had commenced sooner. They also pass along their complaints via social media to friends who are potential tourists.
According to the association – which is lobbying Congress for funding to add Customs staff as well as Customs technology to expedite processing – every foreign visitor shares impressions of the trip, good or bad, with an average of eight people. So when two overseas vacation destinations both have lots to offer, the decision sometimes comes down to the destination where there’s less red tape.
Rojas-Ungar cited the association’s recent experience with Chinese travelers.
“We knew that there was huge demand and visitation of the Chinese to Europe,” with comparatively less visitation to the States, she said. Once the association lobbied the federal government to reduce the typical wait for a Chinese travel visa from 100 days to about a week, “People started applying in droves for the visa,” Roajs-Ungar recalled. “What we saw was the word of mouth among the Chinese got out.”