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Friday, June 25, 2004

Telegraph | Travel | US travel trade turns on 'rude' immigration staff

Telegraph | Travel | US travel trade turns on 'rude' immigration staff

US travel trade turns on 'rude' immigration staff
America's travel industry, fearful of the damage heavy-handed immigration officers are doing to the image of the country, wants to send them to charm school.
(Filed: 26/06/2004)

America's travel industry, fearful of the damage heavy-handed immigration officers are doing to the image of the country, wants to send them to charm school.

The move comes as part of a drive by the Travel Industry Association of America (TIA) to provide an improved welcome for international visitors in time for the summer.

Over the past months there has been a flood of letters to The Daily Telegraph from tourists complaining about rude and abusive treatment at US airports since the tightening of security to combat the threat of terrorism.

Gwyneth Dunwoody, Labour MP for Crewe and Nantwich and chairman of the transport select committee, said British travellers were being treated "as though they were felons". The Foreign Office has also complained to the US authorities.

The TIA, which represents tourist boards, hotels and airlines, is urging the US government to hire more consular staff to speed up the processing of visa applications at embassies and more immigration officers to reduce the wait for incoming tourists at airports. It says immigration officers should have better training in customer service and be reminded that visitors must be "treated with respect and courtesy at all times".

The association has asked the Department of Homeland Security to improve procedures to eliminate cases of mistaken identity. It has also supported the call to delay the requirement for all new passports to contain "biometric indicators" - computer chips with a digitally encoded record of the bearer's face and, possibly, fingerprints.

Vanessa Welter, of Visit Florida, said: "We are very concerned about how we are perceived because the authorities are not showing that we are a friendly country. We are telling visitors that we want them here."

A Washington-based spokesman for the Department of Homeland Security defended its record but said it was committed to working with the travel industry.

"All the front-line staff go through thorough training but we do take the concerns very seriously," he said. "We have a commitment to reduce queueing times and to treat people courteously."

Alan Waddell, the UK-based director of Visit USA, claimed that immigration authorities had improved their treatment of visitors.

"On my last three visits to the US the officials were friendly," he said. "This is good news because bookings are strong and in April were up 19 per cent on the previous month."

The Homeland Security spokesman said that cases of mistaken identity would be greatly reduced from September 30, when new rules will require all British visitors to be fingerprinted.

Tom Ridge, the Homeland Security Secretary, asked Congress to extend by two years the October 26 deadline for all new passports to have biometric indicators because Britain and other EU countries are not ready to produce them. The House of Representatives has agreed a one-year extension and it is hoped the Senate will increase it to two.

A spokeswoman for the UK Passport Service said any delay would be welcome.

Meanwhile, the service has announced that people will be able to apply online for a passport from next February. "Applicants will still have to send their photos in by post, but they will be able to fill in the form and provide credit card details online, which will speed up the process," the spokeswoman said.

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