WASHINGTON, Dec. 22 (UPI) -- Former Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge has signed up with a travel industry lobby group to prepare a package of "big and bold" reforms to U.S. visa and border rules.
The aim of the reforms is to make it easier for global travelers to visit the United States.
The package, covering changes to the U.S. visa process and procedures at ports of entry, will also recommend a major PR campaign promoting the changes, Geoff Freeman, executive director of the Discover America Partnership, told United Press International.
"We will be working with Gov. Ridge to develop a package of big and bold ideas" for release in January, said Freeman.
Freeman declined to go into detail. "There are a lot of different ideas out there," he said, adding that Ridge and other industry partners would be looking at them in the coming weeks.
The Discover America Partnership worked out a deal with Ridge this week "to evaluate the U.S. entry process and propose strategies for striking a better balance between secure borders and open doors" than the current visa and border control regime does, the group said in a statement.
The news drew a wary response from U.S. border security advocates, but Freeman said the changes were needed to counter a looming crisis in the perceptions of global travelers' about visiting the United States.
He cited a recent study commissioned by the group of 2,000-plus randomly selected long-haul international travelers from 16 countries around the world. The survey found that the United States was ranked the worst destination "when it comes being traveler-friendly in terms of obtaining necessary documents or visas, and having immigration officials who are respectful toward foreign visitors."
More than a third of respondents -- 39 percent -- ranked United States worst, Thomas Riehle, a partner at RT Strategies, which conducted the online survey, told UPI. The next-most traveler-unfriendly destinations were the Middle East and the Central and South Asia regions, which were listed worst by just 16 percent.
Those regions -- which respondents indicated on a map as part of the survey -- included Syria, Iran, Pakistan and Afghanistan.
Among those who had actually visited the United States, Riehle said 36 percent still ranked the country as the most travel-unfriendly destination, a difference he called "statistically significant, but very small."
The 16 countries from which the survey sample was drawn included just two Middle Eastern or Islamic nations -- Turkey and the United Arab Emirates -- both close U.S. allies.
Freeman said the survey showed a looming -- and avoidable -- crisis in perceptions of the United States that was going to cost the U.S. economy dear. "We are loosing hundreds of thousands of potential visitors," he said.
But he said recent statements by President George W. Bush and legislative moves by the U.S. Congress were encouraging.
Last month, on the fringes of a NATO summit in Riga, Bush announced plans to expand the Visa Waiver Program, under which citizens of 27 countries can visit the United States for up to three months for business or pleasure without a visa.
"We want people to come to our country," Bush said. "It's in our nation's interest that people be able to come and visit."
Language in a defense appropriations law passed this year by Congress may delay the introduction of a requirement for passports or other secure identity documents at U.S. land border crossings -- a congressional mandate under the Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative -- until 2009. "Policy-makers realized that policy wasn't ready for prime time," said Freeman of the initiative.
"People understand the need to address this problem," he said, adding that it was also a missed opportunity. "Opinions change in a positive way" when people have actually visited the country.
Michael Cutler, a retired federal immigration agent and now a fellow at the Center for Immigration Studies, which advocates a tighter immigration and border regime, told UPI that the travel industry was "prioritizing profits over national security" in calling for a relaxation of border and visa controls.
Cutler, a passionate advocate of tighter security who has testified before Congress, said he was "disappointed but not surprised" by Ridge's decision to sign up with the lobby group.
"Follow the money," he said, saying that Ridge was just the latest in a series of former homeland security officials to go through "Washington's revolving door" to work for the travel industry.
Ridge was not available for interview Thursday, representatives said.
"If the goal is to open up our borders by expanding the Visa Waiver Program" and similar measures, "that is perilous," Cutler said, attributing the 17 percent drop in U.S. visitors since Sept. 11, 2001 to fears about terrorism.
But the survey showed that fears about "legal and security issues" like post-Sept. 11, 2001 visa and passport rules "or the way foreign visitors are treated by U.S. immigration officials and security officials," were a bigger concern for visitors, even those who had been before, than fears of terrorism or other "crime and safety" issues.
Seventy percent said border rules and treatment were a concern, compared to 54 percent listing terrorism. Among those who had visited the United States, concern about terrorism was the same, but concern about border procedures was even higher -- 76 percent.