U.S. saw record number of visitors in 2008

Published 13 April 2009

Dire predictions about how enhanced security at U.S. port of entry notwithstanding, 2008 saw a record 50.5 million foreign visitors come to the United States

They said that increased security at U.S. ports of entry — airports, sea ports, border crossings —would depress tourism and hurt to U.S. tourist industry. It is good to see that the numbers show otherwise. USA Today reports that a record number of foreigners visited the United States in 2008, thanks largely to an increasing number of Mexicans and Canadians on vacations or business trips, according to government reports. Half the record 50.5 million foreign visitors in 2008 came from Canada and Mexico and the other half from overseas, Commerce Department figures show. In 2000 nearly 60 percent of the 45 million foreign visitors came from overseas. The figures exclude Mexicans going only to U.S. border areas.

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce and U.S. Travel Association say some Europeans, Asians, South Americans, and Middle Easterners avoid flying to the United States because of perceived hassles getting visas and clearing security. “They do not see it as a welcoming destination,” says Angelo Amador, the Chamber’s immigration policy director. “If you look at the global travel market as a whole, travel and tourism have been going up, but our market share has been shrinking.”

Geoff Freeman, senior vice president of the travel association, notes substantial growth in travel from Canada and Mexico. Asian and South American visitors are down about 15 percent each from 2000. Visitors from Western Europe exceeded the 2000 level for the first time last year, many lured by a weak dollar, Freeman says.

Former DHS policy chief Stewart Baker says the growth in European visitors indicates that problems getting into the United States are “gradually diminishing.” The department has implemented less onerous security measures, such as collecting names of passengers before flights leave for the United States, Baker says. “We can do the checks in advance behind the scenes, and when people show up who haven’t triggered any alarms, you can just wave them through,” Baker says.

DHS figures show that 75 percent of foreign visitors in 2008 were tourists and 14 percent were on business trips. The rest were temporary workers and students or were on extended visits to relatives. Business groups want the government to better promote U.S. travel. “The first contact a tourist has with the U.S. is somebody with a gun,” Amador says, referring to Customs officers. “We’re trying to change that.”