By Douglas Doan

The White House says that President Obama is taking the unusual step of personally lobbying the international Olympic committee in order to help create jobs, spur tourism and promote economic growth for the US and especially his home town of Chicago.   Certainly, the President should promote trade and tourism, but it is a pity that he can’t get DHS fully on board and willing to make a similar commitment.

Trade and tourism to the US have never returned to pre-9/11 levels, and foreign tourists cite the tedious, inefficient, and frustrating DHS policies at our airports and ports of entry as the biggest turn offs, resulting in several billion dollars a year in lost US revenues.  And yet, most curious of all, fixing the problem is not a DHS priority.  In fact, DHS is busy making the problem even worse.

DHS has spent all of its time and effort aimed at the security side of the equation and has lost no opportunity to bring new and expanded security processes and equipment to airports and official ports of entry.  These accumulative efforts have, without question, tightened security.  But at the same time, they have caused additional problems and created new frustrations for legitimate trade and travelers.

Take for example what happens at the airport.  International arrivals are immediately queued up to clear CBP passport and documentation checks.  Most often, CBP does not have enough inspectors manning the inspection lanes (despite a nearly 100% increase in operating budget over the past 6 years), so travelers are queued up into longer than necessary lanes.  Once they get through that gauntlet, it’s time to pick up the luggage and then negotiate the next line formed up for baggage control.

Get through that wicket and then it’s time to, once again, get into the TSA line, take off your shoes, belts, put the little bottles in the plastic bin, and move through the TSA gauntlet before hustling down to the gate to catch your connecting flight to Disneyland.   Assuming that a tourist is able to get through all of this without missing a flight, by the time they arrive, the kids are exhausted, and quite often folks start to wonder why they didn’t stay home and escape the aggravation.

Making DHS activities at airports and ports of entry more efficient is not that difficult.  CBP and TSA officers at airports could easily be cross trained in airport operations, allowing DHS to move needed officers to wherever they were needed most to help keep travelers moving.  Our current operations are essentially large stovepipes, with TSA officers doing their thing, CBP officers doing something else, and not a lick of cooperation or resource-sharing between the two.  What a waste.

Unfortunately, neither Secretary Ridge, Chertoff, nor Napolitano has ever expressed much interest (at least yet) in forcing sub-agencies to work together, share resources, and cooperate towards a common goal.  TSA and CBP remain rigid, standalone stovepipes determined to operate as independent agencies.  Equally frustrating, contracts and IT upgrades at our airports and ports of entry are rolled out with a complete disregard towards improving inefficiencies and speeding the flow of legitimate trade and travelers.   The one and only concern is improving security at all and any costs.

Of course, the real irony is that one of the stated goals of Osama-bin laden was to get the US to panic and impose economically, self-defeating policies and procedures on itself.   For those that have forgotten, the Bin Laden specifically targeted American economic might and power.  The World Trade Centers were, above all else, symbols of American economic power that he hope to destroy and “bleed” the American economy.   “Every dollar of al Qaeda defeated a million dollars, by the permission of Allah, besides the loss of a huge number of jobs,” he said  In subsequent rants, Obama went on to talk about how Americans could be scared into adopting policies and procedures that would lead to our own economic ruin.

Sadly, Bin Laden’s strategy has largely been successful.  The economic damage caused by long lines of stalled trade at our borders, frustrated travelers, and foreign tourists and visitors that have given up on making trips to America, has probably now exceeded the economic damage caused by 9/11.   And we did it to ourselves, giving Bin Laden a victory he did not deserve.

Restoring some sort of balance between the legitimate needs to secure the borders with the simultaneous need to restore the United States position as a nation that welcomes and respects legitimate trade and travel is not going to be an easy undertaking.   In places, like Detroit, Buffalo and southern Texas, foreign visitors once made frequent trips across the border from Canada and Mexico to shop, take in a meal, or go to a sports event.  These frequent crossers are disappearing.  Turns out the hassle, long lines, and aggravation in crossing the border are no longer worth the effort, and these tourists are just staying home.  It will not be easy to change those perceptions.

One bright spot has been the recent unexpected decision by Secretary Napolitano to recruit Maria Louisa O’Connell as an Asst Commissioner of CBP.  O’Connell brings real experience with the trade and travel industry and knows all too well the problems and frustrations, having served previously as the President of the Border Trade Association.  It was a brilliant move and was cheered by trade and travel experts all along the border.  It’s a good start in the right direction.
Too bad that the President did not take some of the DHS officers with him to Copenhagen to press the case for tourism and trade to America.    Now that’s a story that they need to hear.