Looking at 188 countries around the world, [Robert] Lawson and [Saurav] Roychoudhury examined which ones require people to apply for a visa before they visit. Then they studied how many tourists travel from one country to another. Allowing for factors such as population, income, the size of bilateral trade, economic policies, a measure of democracy, and an indicator of world-class sites of cultural importance, they found that tougher visa requirements imposed on potential visitors from a given country are associated with considerably less tourism from that country. In short: Demanding a visa from a country’s travelers in advance is associated with a 70 percent lower level of tourist entries than from a similar country where there is no visa requirement. The U.S. requires an advance visa from citizens of 81 percent of the world’s countries; if it waived that requirement, the researchers estimate, inbound tourism arrivals would more than double, and tourism expenditure would climb by $123 billion.
This may seem trivial, but it isn’t with respect to American soft power. Most Dishheads are American citizens, so they don’t fully see what it is like to enter the US as a non-citizen. It’s a grueling, off-putting, frightening, and often brutal process. Compared with entering a European country, it’s like entering a police state. When you add the sheer difficulty of getting a visa, the brusque, rude and contemptuous treatment you routinely get from immigration officials at the border, the sense that all visitors are criminals and potential terrorists unless proven otherwise, the US remains one of the most unpleasant places for anyone in the world to try and get access to.
And this, of course, is a function not only of a vast and all-powerful bureaucracy. It’s a function of this country’s paranoia and increasing insularity. It’s a thoroughly democratic decision to keep foreigners out as much as possible. And it’s getting worse and worse. Since I first came here in 1984, it’s a different world. Clinton’s 1996 law made matters far worse; 9/11 did the rest; and the Obama administration hasn’t changed much of anything.