Tourism officials look to weak dollar, coalition to boost visitor numbers
By April M. Havens
As national and local obstacles threaten to stifle international travel, Greater Miami Convention & Visitors Bureau officials hope the effects of a weak US dollar and a national tourism partnership will offset those challenges.
William Talbert III, president and CEO of the visitors bureau, said international visitation has increased in the past four years but is still below pre-9/11 averages.
International travelers totaling 5.68 million accounted for 50.9% of all overnight visitors to the area in 2000, the bureau said. Last year, a record year for Miami tourism, 5.32 million international visitors accounted for 45.9% of all overnight visitors.
"Although 2006 was a record year for us, that increase was from the domestic market," said Rolando Aedo, acting senior vice president of marketing and tourism at the bureau. "We are still relatively flat since 9/11, but we are aggressively pursuing the international market."
Miami International Airport reported 16.18 million international passengers in 2000, nearly 1.5 million more than in 2006. Domestic travel last year surpassed pre-9/11 levels with 17.8 million passengers, compared with 17.4 million in 2000.
Miami historically has seen a 50/50 split in foreign and domestic visitors, Mr. Talbert said, noting the significant shift in post-9/11 percentages. "As a major gateway city, international travel is critical to Miami," Mr. Talbert said. "Not being up to par with pre-9/11 international visitation is costing us a lot of economic activity and jobs."
Despite the overall lag in international tourism, Mr. Talbert said, British visitation is on a steady incline. Mr. Talbert credits that to a weakening US dollar and specific marketing by the bureau's London office. He said he expects the British market to continue to grow.
Costa Rica is the only market that has returned to pre-9/11 numbers, Mr. Talbert said. Costa Rica is ranked No. 10 in Miami's international markets.
The main challenges facing the international tourism industry in the US include delayed visa processing and the perception among travelers of rude immigration officials and feelings of being unwelcome, Mr. Talbert said.
In some areas of Brazil, it can take up to 100 days to receive a visa, he said. The Discover America Partnership reported that in areas of India, the wait may be up to 184 days for visa processing. "The message that sends to the customer is "you're not welcome,'" he said.
The Discover America Partnership, a travel and tourism coalition spearheaded by the Travel Business Roundtable and Travel Industry Association, aims to encourage and welcome international travel. Its three major goals include speeding visa processing, modernizing and securing US ports of entry and changing foreign nationals' poor perceptions of the US.
"54% of international travelers say that immigration officials are rude," Mr. Talbert said, citing a Discover American Partnership survey of 2,000 worldwide travelers that found the US entry process is perceived as the world's worst by a two-to-one margin.
"Our government should realize that safety, security and customer service are not mutually exclusive items," he said.
Under new Department of Homeland Security guidelines, international air passengers will undergo mandatory fingerprinting by the end of 2008 upon leaving the US in addition to already used arrival fingerprinting, according to US-Visit and Homeland Security spokesperson Kimberly Weissman.
A pilot program that ended in May revealed flaws in the trial system, which required passengers to use blue kiosks for two-fingerprint scans, Ms. Weissman said. "We are working with airlines and are trying to see how we can improve the pilot," she said. "We will no longer look at kiosks, but we realize we need something that's very consistent and convenient so passengers do not miss it."
While no other procedural decisions have been made, Ms. Weissman said US-Visit has decided to up the two-fingerprint scans to 10-fingerprint scans, minimizing the likelihood that prints will match multiple persons.
New exit procedures should reduce document fraud and help the department verify that international passengers have indeed left the country in compliance with their terms of admission, Ms. Weissman.
This new biometric exit system has received mixed reviews from the tourism industry. While the Discover America Partnership supports a speedy version of this modern exit system for security purposes, some airlines worry it will create longer lines and slow down an already lengthy process. Mr. Talbert agrees. "It sounds like just another slowing of the process," he said.
In addition to national hurdles, local challenges for Miami tourism include poor customer service, Mr. Talbert said.
Secret shopping research at local hotels, retail venues, attractions, ground transportation providers and other service areas will tell the bureau the strengths and weaknesses in Miami customer service.
"One thing we have shown early is the need to use somebody's name," Mr. Talbert said, referring to personalizing the exchange between caller and customer service representative. "Our customer service may be perceived as too impersonal."