EDITOR'S LETTER

It's Time to Replace the Welcome Mat

By Erik Torkells, Monday, Aug 6, 2007, 5:42 PM

After a recent trip to Amsterdam, I had a tough reentry into the U.S. Everyone on my flight was forced to wait in a hallway at JFK, crammed tighter than we had been in coach, with no explanation as to why we couldn't proceed. After 10 long minutes, I saw a few people at the front move (one of the benefits of being tall). I pushed my way to the agent. She was letting people with U.S. passports go through--but not announcing it.

I felt terrible for the non-Americans left standing there. And when I saw the main passport-control line for foreigners, I felt even worse: It already had hundreds of people in it. Then again, that's de rigueur at U.S. airports. (In Amsterdam I waited all of three minutes.) And then there's the matter of how we treat our visitors: At Newark last year, I saw an immigration agent tell a Chinese woman who spoke no English to wait where she was standing. When she moved, he pointed at the ground and yelled "Stay!"--just like you would to a dog.

Lately, the media have been focusing on how our government mishandles travel policy, including how the new passport rules got botched and how we've failed to attract foreign tourists. (According to the Department of Commerce, the number of overseas visitors has dropped 17 percent since 2000--and, yes, other countries' tourism numbers have rebounded since 9/11.) But we also need to look at what kind of welcome we're giving the folks who do come. The U.S. is a great destination, but we're not the only one, and word is getting out that we don't seem to want guests. And that's a real shame.