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U.S. to Arab tourists: No thanks

Published May 6, 2006

DUBAI, United Arab Emirates - Promoters from 59 countries - including Japan, Canada and England - vied to outdo each other at a giant tourism convention this week in a bid to attract visits by big-spending gulf Arab tourists. But the United States was absent.

While U.S. officials are touring the Mideast to salvage America's image, American tour companies have done the opposite, dropping efforts to lure Arabs to Disney World, New York and Las Vegas since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.

Not a single American state or city visitors' bureau showed up to tempt Arabs to New York City, Las Vegas or Disney World. Only one Florida-based tour company made the trip.

The Orlando-based Tourico Holidays rented a small booth, with a three-person team selling vacations in North and South America and Europe.

With the Americans absent, Japan, England, Australia and other countries competed for well-heeled Arabs and foreigners living in the region.

"There certainly is a perception that the United States is not as welcoming to Arabs as it was a few years ago," said Larry Wilson, a senior official at Dubai-based Zayed University. "That perception is something we need to change. It won't happen by sending politicians here or by a speech from the White House, but only through efforts to reach out to the people."

After Sept. 11, American visitors' bureaus and companies in the tourist business stopped coming to the annual Arabian Travel Market convention, show chairman Tom Nutley said.

Tightened U.S. visa restrictions on Arabs are part of the problem, Nutley said. Arab men in particular are sometimes turned down for visas or forced to wait months for permission to travel to the United States.

Arabs "still come to the United States but obviously less than before due to visa and security issues and the political environment," said Tourico's Amir Kalmar.

Nutley said American operators no longer see Arab travelers as a prime target.

"It's sad they're not here," said Canadian tour operator Terry Engesser. "There's a lot of interest in the U.S."

The gulf tourism market is one of the most lucrative, and the four-day convention here touted luxury destinations. The World Tourism Organization said Arab tourists from the gulf states spent more than $12-billion last year on foreign vacations.

[Last modified May 6, 2006, 08:03:49]

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