When President Obama presented Friday to the International Olympic Committee, the Pakistani representative asked him how the United States would make international visitors feel more welcomed. President Obama admitted that we need to do better.
Our shabby treatment of international guests has cost us more than the 2016 Summer Olympic Games. It costs us billions of dollars of lost business each year.
U.S. companies that make large machinery complain that their overseas competition gets business from those unwilling to be subject to the harsh U.S. visa procedures or rude treatment upon arrival at our borders. When buyers from overseas face difficulty coming here, U.S. companies must travel abroad to get business.
This is no more apparent than the challenges we face producing the nation's largest annual event, the International CES, held each January in Las Vegas. We make our show a world-class event (we were recognized last month by Trade Show Executive as the nation's "most global event"), but our nation's visa policies work against us in attracting the world to our country.
Consider the challenges faced by a Chinese buyer who wants to visit the CES to buy products made by U.S. companies. The buyer must first travel to a Chinese city with a U.S. embassy or consulate. He must wait in line and pay a $131 fee (USD). He must buy a pre-paid phone card to call and schedule an interview and return months later for that interview with his personal financial statements in hand. But to get to that interview he may wait more than two hours in line -- all this for an encounter that could last just five minutes. Afterward, the buyer will be informed whether he will receive a visa.
A U.S. business executive would not suffer this treatment. For a respected and busy Chinese businessman this is more than an annoying process -- it is easier to simply go to our competitor show in Germany. The American embassy staff is hard working and well intentioned but forced to follow arcane and harmful laws.
The result of these policies is that the United States loses out to Europe competitively. European companies pay less to reach buyers. The European economy benefits from the money spent by international visitors. The American economy and American companies lose as international visitors feel unwelcome in America.
Consider also how German political leaders support a German event that CES directly competes with for buyers, exhibitors and attention. Chancellor Angela Merkel and other leaders do everything possible to support the event -- including attending the event itself. In August, I attended the German event and spoke to Chancellor Merkel about her support of major events. She recognized how important they are to the German economy and to facilitating German business.
Contrast that to how American political leaders approach world-class events. For the most part, they simply don't go near them. First, the American ethics laws have become so absurd that many leaders that do attend are barred from eating meals or staying more than a day. Can you imagine how difficult it is to host leaders, including political leaders from other countries, when our own political leaders are effectively barred from attending our events? And our leaders also suffer from not gaining firsthand knowledge of the dynamic technology industry on display.
Indeed, the entire event business has suffered not only because of the economy, but also after unfortunate remarks President Obama made in February about TARP recipients doing business in Orlando and Las Vegas. Both cities subsequently lost several business events as concerned organizers and companies were focused on the "optics" rather than the high value of these locations for doing business.
We can only move forward and learn from the past. We need to look at visiting America through the eyes of our prospective international guests. While maintaining security is paramount, we must learn to distinguish between potential threats and legitimate business people. We need to make the experience more positive -- including signage, comfort and approach from our immigration officials. We need to change the visa laws and other laws regulating government employee travel so our own leaders can help us host international visitors and make them feel welcome.
Moreover, President Obama has the ability to change the tone and extend the welcome mat to international visitors. I urge him to make a high-visibility appearance at a Las Vegas or Orlando trade show (Mr. President, please consider this an invitation to participate in the International CES in January 2010).
Our nation remains the greatest country on the earth. But we need a dose of humility. We have to make people feel welcome if we want them to come here.
Gary Shapiro is the president and CEO of the Consumer Electronics Association.
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