As of 2012, the last full year for which data is available, the United Kingdom saw visitor volume to the U.S. drop for the fourth consecutive year, with volume down nearly one million visitors since its peak of 4.7 million in the year 2000. Since 2005, the drop-off has been 13 percent, representing 582,000 fewer visitors from the UK.
In financial terms, this represents a spending drop by British tourists in the U.S. of $848 million in 2012 as compared to 2005.
That’s a big loss for U.S. tourism.
One traditional way for tourism agencies to ramp up visitation is to invite foreign journalists — specifically travel writers — to tour a country and write about it. Of course, magazines and other publishers also send travel writers off to do stories around the world. And the U.S. certainly has plenty of wonderful things to fill reams of magazine and guidebook pages that could lure foreign travelers here.
But it turns out that the United States government makes it difficult for all foreign journalists on assignment — including travel writers — to enter the country. And this applies equally to journalists from some 27 countries — including Britain — where most of the citizenry is permitted by the Visa Waiver Program to enter the U.S. for 90 days whether traveling for business, tourism or transit. (Most of the countries covered by the Visa Waiver Program are in Western Europe, with a few exceptions.)
According to an official U.S. Customs and Border Patrol website, citizens from the countries covered by the Visa Waiver Program will be admitted without a visa (assuming they have a valid passport and meet other technical criteria) as long as the:
- Traveller is not a journalist on assignment (my emphasis added) nor an individual seeking gainful employment.
- Traveller has never been arrested (even if the arrest did not lead to a conviction) and has not been convicted of a crime.
- Traveller has not been refused entry into or deported from the United States and has not previously violated the terms of admission under the visa waiver program.
In short, journalists on assignment are lumped in with criminals or those who have been previously deported, or are seeking a job or have committed other transgressions. “Those who attempt to do so [enter the country without a visa] may be denied admission to the United States by immigration authorities at the port of entry,” the U.S. website warns.
So how do foreign journalists — including British travel writers on assignment — get into the U.S.? They must apply for an “I” (media) visa.
You might ask, well, how tough can that be? One writer’s story is below, and I’ll let him tell it in his own words. His name is Alun Hill, and he’s a British journalist and broadcaster who covers travel:
“Did you know,” Hill told writers’ chat group, that “British journalists (of any sort) are barred from automatic visa free entry to the USA?
“Like ex-convicts and lunatics, we have to pay a hefty (non-refundable) fee, be in London for a searching interview at the US embassy (which means a London hotel night for many and a day’s lost work).
“We then have to leave our passports at the Embassy for a few days (so no travelling abroad, even into Europe during this period), then go back (another expensive journey to London, which is a two day round trip for many people) to collect it.
“And if we’re refused, we get stamped ‘refused entry to the USA’ in our passports (not something you want when you travel!).
“There’s more. We have a statute of limitations which is very strictly upheld in this country – basically most crimes are ‘wiped’ after a period. However, to visit the ‘free land’ of the USA, we also have to obtain – and pay for – a UK police report to show that we have a clean record, going right back to childhood.
“We don’t need that for travel to another country in the world (I deliberately include Russia, China and North Korea in that list!), so why is America (supposedly a free nation) so scared of British journalists?
“Incidentally, for clarity, this applies to ANY type of journalist / reporter visiting the USA for any purpose … even, for example, a reporter for a small town newspaper who’s just visiting Disneyland for a family holiday for example.
“I brought this up in a meeting, along with a BBC crew, at the World Travel Market here in London last November – and the huge Visit USA team (who had spent a small fortune to attend and try to encourage more British journalists over – UK visitor numbers to the USA have dropped since this ban came in) were completely shocked and had no idea … and their team included owners of many resort groups, restaurant groups and attractions – and the head of their PR team (the latter went a bit pale!)…at least let us come over there … and say nice things about your lovely country!”
While Hill wrote the above two years ago, he’s updated his posts in the past few days, and reiterated that nothing has changed.
He has also charged that “Even if they put you on the next flight back, you are shackled and put in a holding cell, as a minimum.” He continues: “I can back this up. I know a journalist who flew to Miami. He intended to walk round the boat show, he did not at the time have a direct commission from his editor but it was likely he would have mentioned having been at the show in copy he writes for a well known yachting magazine. He had no visa, he was detained, locked up and imprisoned for 36 hours or so before being deported and his records were noted with the comment that he would not be allowed a visa for 5 years and would not be permitted to enter the USA for 5 years.”
Now, let’s be clear. I don’t know Alun Hill and I don’t know anything about the journalist who was allegedly detained in Miami and then deported. I also understand that the U.S. is operating under greater border security since 9/11, 2001.
But I have verified the U.S. policy toward foreign journalists, and I think Hill’s story is important and deserves a wider audience — because I don’t understand why British journalists (and others from the 27 Visa Waiver Program countries, at minimum) are being singled out among all professions for what sounds like an excessively onerous visa approval process.
My immediate concern, for purposes of this blog — whose subject matter is baby boomer travel and how to market it — is that the U.S. is losing out on valuable tourism business from the UK because British travel writers are finding it harder to pursue their profession.
I’ve criticized other countries for their onerous visa policies toward U.S. citizens — so it’s only fair to point out when U.S. visa policies seem overly onerous for media from countries that are supposed to be our closest allies.
British journalists do have a reputation for asking tough questions — if you’ve ever listened to BBC News, you’ll know what I mean — but that’s exactly what journalists (including travel writers) are supposed to do.
I don’t see any reason why we should put up barriers to them doing that — or, for that matter, taking their families to Disney World and writing about it for their publications.
Answer to Last Week’s Travel Quiz:
In 2012, which of these countries did NOT rank among the top 10 of international visitors to the U.S.?
The answer is C. Italy.