As a tourist destination, America has it made. It doesn't need to leverage the Hobbit for a decade to bring visitors out. To attract us over, it draws on a lifetime of embedding itself in our consciousness through its popular culture.
But, it doesn't change one thing; visiting America as a tourist can be a bit of a bummer. There's room for improvement.
I've found myself wondering, what specifically would I change about America as a place of travel?
America could work a little more on its welcome.
Arriving into America after the long flight from New Zealand is horrid. There's the sense that you're so near to your destination, but still so far away. Just as you round the corner into customs, you glance the entrance point for American residents, where there's no waiting time and twice as many customs officers working. You then funnel into the packed, artificially lit room and join the back of a line that has snaked around upon itself a dozen times. This wait is always agony. All the while they're playing a short promotional video about America on a small overhead screen, replete with eagles flying over the Grand Canyon and interracial groupings of people eating ice cream and laughing together. The movie feels bitterly ironic.
As the line ticks down, you realise that just as you're at your most tired and unwashed, you are going to have to survive a short, high-stakes conversation with an aggressive customs official.
American customs officials, to a person almost, are horrid and officious. They're suspicious, they argue, they never smile, they're know-it-alls.
Flying into San Francisco from Mexico City in 2007, following a stint in Buenos Aires, I had a customs official quibble with me about how I had arrived into Argentina to begin with. He refused to believe that I could get there without routeing through the USA and suggested that I had neglected to get a stamp when I had done so. I ended up having to explain to him about New Zealand's international airport system and the options on offer to us if we want to travel abroad.
It needs better ground transportation options to open up more of the country.
America is an unwieldy and large country. New Zealanders coming for a trip will (probably) be flying into San Francisco or Los Angeles. People arrive into a hub, stay a few days and skip over to the next American hub, missing out on the good stuff in between. The lack of an attractive bus service and viable system of trains plays directly into the hands of domestic airlines. Renting a car is one solution, even if it limits how far you can get to, but not everyone is so comfortable with driving in a foreign country.
In America, the buses are grotty, moving hovels, stacked with strange smells and unseemly characters. The train network is almost defunct. I couldn't catch a train from San Francisco to Los Angeles without transferring three times. I looked at catching a train from San Francisco to Salt Lake City to attend Sundance and it would've taken me almost 10 more hours to go on the Amtrak than it would to drive. It's also cheaper and easier to fly than catch the train, which doesn't make sense to me.
China and Europe have adopted high-speed rail, to much acclaim. Eurail extends through all of Europe and Scandinavia, from Portugal to Norway, and is a relied-upon asset for thousands of tourists there each year.
In America, a high-speed rail advocacy group released a plan this month that detailed a similar network, bringing together existing proposals, that could be running in America by as early as 2030. Much of that infrastructure is already here. It would allow a tourist to get from Los Angeles to New York within a day of travelling. But given the powerful interests pushing against the expansion of rail (car lobby, etc) and the political poison pill that infrastructure spending is, America will continue to lag behind Europe and China on this front for some time.
Brand "America" could use a little touch-up.
"America" (if such a notion can be defined in a single word) is its own worst enemy. Runaway insurance costs, rampant gun ownership, outspoken rednecks, extreme security procedures at airports and outsize bureaucracy give it a bad name. It distorts how people view America and how they engage.
The American international tourism industry is carried by topline cities like New York, San Francisco, Miami and Los Angeles. These are all cities where people will risk getting hurt tthough medical expenses could ruin them, where the government is putting more bureaucracy around simply coming here for a visit, where it's not just your shoes and belt you have to take off at the security check-in, but every piece of clothing above a T-shirt and pants (and yet they still get to look at an X-ray scanner that, for now, shows off your rude bits).
And then when you have mouthy rednecks (often taking the form of rich businessmen or Republican senators) making sexist, regressive, often racist comments that get ricocheted around the world, or, say, a mass-shooting every second month, people start to develop weird, out-of-touch opinions on things like safety in the average American city, or broadly dismissing the entire southern states of the country.
I've stopped at three. But you should keep the list going. Mine had a bunch of other stuff on it (the homogenous nature of freeways, price creep at youth hostels, and so on) but I thought I had written enough for one Friday.
So I put this to you; how would you improve America as a tourist destination?
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