It’s The Taxis, Stupid.

Violence is the No. 1 concern of foreigners contemplating a trip to the United States, according to participants at a Pow Wow round-table discussion that included top tour operators from Japan, Germany, Great Britain, France, Italy, Australia and Venezuela [1994].

The panel, hosted Tuesday by Bob Dickinson, Travel Industry Association of America chairman and president of Carnival Cruise Lines, allowed tour operators to explain what their customers like and dislike about the United States.

“A trip to the USA is a dream visit,” said Naoto Katsumata, deputy general manager of Kinki Nippon Tourist Co., which sent more than 100,000 Japanese visitors to America in 1993. “But what scares us most is the gun problem. If there was a solution to this, the amount of Japanese tourists to the USA would double.”

While stories of violence in the United States have created a feeling of dread among potential visitors, the tour operators were all generally positive about this country.

“One of the things Australians like most about America is how friendly the people are,” said David Farar, U.S. product manager of Swingaway World Holidays in Sydney.

“Most of our tourists enter through the West Coast and travel across the country, and practically everyone comments on how welcome they feel, and that gives great peace of mind.”

But violence was mentioned by all of the panelists as the major concern.

“There was a poll taken in Britain,” said Christopher Smart, president of Great Britain’s Jetsave Ltd. “One of the questions asked was what is the most violent place in the world. Kenya and Turkey came in third, followed by North Africa, but 47 percent named Florida the most violent destination in the world. That is the perception of the man in the street in Britain.”

Other subjects touched on were a seemingly universal dislike of American taxis and their drivers.

The major concern of the buyers themselves was the small amount of money the United States spends promoting itself, something tour operators, who work on narrow profit margins, feel should not remain the responsibility of the private sector.

“When we speak of countries’ perceptions of the U.S.,” said Smart, “consider that Morocco spent $1.3 million promoting its country in the U.K. last year; France $2.1 million; Turkey $1.2 million; and the United States Travel and Tourism Association spent $40,000, which was $40,000 more than they spent the last year.

“Travelers have the world to choose from, and America’s world share of tourists is down. As a tour operator, I have the world to sell my customers, but I can’t sell a destination. You have superb, dedicated people at the TTA, but you have no budget. And if the violence continues to be an issue, you will need a massive advertising campaign.”

Ermanno Fici, general manager of Jetset Voyages in Paris, agrees. “You need to educate people to increase tourism in America,” he said. “There needs to be a program to teach people that America is a diverse place with many attractions.” The Travel Industry Association of America has been lobbying to increase federal government spending on tourism.

“Travel and tourism to the United States brought in $74.4 billion last year,” said chairman Dickinson. “And the USTTA is operating on a budget of$20 million. This government spends more than twice that promoting U.S. agriculture overseas, which brings in less than half of the amount tourism generates.”

The Clinton administration is aware that tourism is now a major U.S. concern, and Travel and Tourism Association Director Greg Farmer has announced that the first-ever executive-level panel on travel and tourism will be held at the White House in late 1995.