Kim suddenly started hitting his chest. I thought he had a medical emergency but before I could call the stewardess, he explained that he was just nervous after watching a video about the immigration process before landing in Chicago. Kim is a junior at a high school in South Korea and was visiting the United States for a couple of months. He was sitting next to me on an American Airlines flight from Tokyo.
Kim was not the only one subject to the bad treatment. Hundreds and thousands of people go through this every day including diplomats, businessmen and journalists. The same week, former Indian President Abdul Kalam was frisked for explosives and humiliated by airport security in New York -- a violation of an established protocol. He was fully identified and this was not his first time either. A couple of years ago he went through the same problem.
Kim's nervousness is not unfounded. Seventy percent of mostly Western European travelers also showed extreme levels of anxiety saying when traveling to the United States; they fear U.S. immigration more than terrorists or criminals. It is then no wonder that travel from Germany, Japan, and the United Kingdom has actually dropped during the last ten years. These three countries along with Canada and Mexico account for about 75 percent of all travelers to the United States.
This survey of European travelers also found that 66 percent were worried they would be detained for some minor blunder, such as wrongly filling out an official form or for being mistaken for a terrorist. Here is how what a frequent traveler to the United States stated in the Orlando Sentinel:
"We are citizens of a country regarded as one of the closest allies the U.S. has.
Yet on arrival we are treated like suspects in a criminal investigation and made to feel very unwelcome," said Ian Jeffrey, a British visitor who has been coming to the United States with his wife for 15 years.
President Obama would like "Made in America" to sell everywhere. He challenged America with references to China and products of other countries at the recent 19 Asian-Pacific nations summit in Hawaii. He also asked our nation to double our exports at his State of the Union address to the Congress early this year.
However, I am not sure about the president's diagnosis of why people do not visit the United States or why we are unable to export more:
"We've kind of taken for granted that people will want to come here, and we aren't out there trying to sell America and attract new businesses into America."
The world watches American movies, sings along to our songs and lines up for the latest iPad. We don't quite need to sell the American brand. It is already well established. Actually China and everyone else tries to follow our culture.
However, businessmen from across the globe call U.S. immigration and customs officials "arrogant, rude and unpredictable" according to the Financial Times. The same survey found that two-thirds of the respondents thought the United States is "the worst country in the world" in the way it treated foreign visitors at the border.
As the Chair of the Parliament of World Religions I encountered the same challenge. I was inviting a few globe-trotting business executives to the United States for a meeting of our international advisory board. I was shocked when some of them asked that the meeting be held either in London or Istanbul instead due to entry point concerns. We had to move our venue.
Global overseas travel grew 40 percent between 2000 and 2010, while overseas travel to the U.S. increased by only 1 percent according to the U.S. Department of Commerce data. Here is how an industry report describes it:
"During this 'lost decade,' our economy squandered an opportunity to gain $606 billion in total spending from 78 million additional visitors -- enough to support 467,000 more jobs annually."
Chinese diplomats and traders are more welcome in the markets and streets of the world than their American counterparts. Why can a country that cannot rival our Constitution, civil rights, freedom and democracy thrive and maintain a solid reputation on the international stage?
Yet, we should take heart in the fact that the lines seeking visas to China are much shorter than those for the United States. That is an indication that not only do we believe in our nation's dream, but people from all around the world do, too. When the same people who are afraid of the border process were asked about what they think of Americans, their response is overwhelmingly positive.
We just need to do be a bit more welcoming and respectful of our customers. Or perhaps we can learn from the competition. China does not bomb its customers. If we like the world to be our customers, we need to treat them with respect. This is what a mom and pop store does and this is what common sense commerce is all about.
I personally told State Department officials at an iftar hosted by former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice that if we continue to be a non-welcoming nation, London will replace Wall Street as the financial capital of the world. They had difficulty understanding my point, but unfortunately it did happen. While the British government is a partner in the war on terrorism, Iraq and Afghanistan, they aggressively courted the fleeing capital from the United States.
We need to be firm but polite. Hostility and a bad attitude do not strengthen security. We should continue to remain firm in our visa process. However, it is possible to be firm in the process but friendly in attitude. It should not cost us a dime to smile and say, "Welcome to the United States."
If the maxim of "the first impression is the last impression" is correct, then the entry point immigration officer must have an even more welcoming personality. Let's keep smiling as we deal with the long line of people who are responding to brand America by visiting us. We should explain and apologize personally to thousands of those who are routinely detained on the daily basis at the border. I would even say that we should stock some milk for babies detained with their mothers for extended hours. Perhaps gurus from Customer Service in corporate America can teach our border security a thing or two.
Gary Shapiro, CEO of the Consumer Electronics Association, said it right:
"America is a great country. By sharing it with others we can boost our economy, create jobs and improve America's image abroad. But if we want more tourists, we have to start making them feel welcome and wanted."
Follow Abdul Malik Mujahid on Twitter: www.twitter.com/malikmujahid