Las Vegas Sun

September 3, 2015

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WHERE I STAND:

Customs officials could learn from Las Vegas

An open letter to Janet Napolitano, secretary of Homeland Security

Dear Madame Secretary,

Maybe it is just me, but ...

Having been born and raised in arguably the most tourist-savvy place on the planet, I have come to understand the importance of a friendly hello, a courteous handshake and a welcoming smile that say to visitors who have come our way, “Thank you for coming to Las Vegas. We are glad you are here.” And to those who return to or live in this wonderful city, “Welcome back.”

We have emphasized forever to those who work at the airport, those who drive taxis and limousines and anyone else who has initial contact with people who provide the lifeblood to our economy that theirs is the first impression we make on our guests, so make it worthwhile. And, for the most part, they do.

So, now I want to tell you about a recent trip I took to Cuba. No, no, this isn’t about the homeland security part of your job, Secretary Napolitano. Getting through airport screeners is certainly a challenge that a bit of common sense could rectify. But those complaints are for another day, especially knowing how busy you are.

No, what I want to talk to you about is the welcome mat that awaits both U.S. citizens upon their return to this country and the millions of visitors to the United States who come with open hearts and wide open eyes and who, I am afraid, get something ugly in return.

Back to Cuba. Cuba, as you know, is a Communist police state ruled by Fidel Castro, et al. There is no reason to think anyone traveling to that country, especially from the United States, which has tried to starve that man out of office for over 50 years, should expect anything but a difficult time when entering the country.

Click to enlarge photo

Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano speaks about advances in airport and travel security at the 2011 Travel & Tourism Summit on Thursday, May 19, 2011, at Aria in Las Vegas.

I entered that country a few weeks ago. So did a couple dozen colleagues from the United States whom I joined on a people-to-people program. What I expected did not happen. From the moment we landed and until the time we retrieved our luggage, went through customs and whatever other bureaucratic requirements were imposed on incoming visitors and took off for our hotel, almost 30 minutes had elapsed.

During our wait at the airport — in the lines to get approved for entry and generally espied by any number of workers — not once did we meet a person who did not welcome us with a big smile and a few curious questions. Not once was there a voice raised or an order barked by some official police-stater. And not once were we treated in any way other than as a welcome guest to Cuba.

Similarly, when we left Cuba there were lines, mostly short, to check our luggage — and have our luggage checked — and to get stamped out of Cuba, which meant some kind of customs effort to make sure we weren’t taking whatever was left from the impoverished country. And while we waited for our on-time airline to not be on time — not an unfamiliar position for American travelers — not once did we run into a surly gate agent, an unfriendly customs or police official or any other person representing Cuba who was less than cordial.

Soon we were airborne, headed to the United States. Although it was a very interesting, enjoyable and valuable learning experience — as almost all foreign travel that I have been fortunate enough to take has been — I still experienced the same feeling I always experience when headed back to my country.

I was thrilled to be an American and overjoyed that I was coming back to the United States of America.

Then, we landed.

I don’t need to tell you, Madame Secretary, what it is like to land at an international terminal in the United States. There are people, hundreds and hundreds of them, all looking for a luggage cart at the same time, each one trying to figure out where they must go to get their luggage and what they must do once they have it. Organized chaos at best.

And, then, we all have to get in lines, very long lines, to go through customs. Some lines are for returning U.S. citizens; some are for visitors. As best I can tell, lines are so long because only half of the customs booths have a person taking passports and stamping forms. I am not complaining about the work they do because it is important, just that there are not enough of them doing it.

We found a line way at the end that looked shorter than the rest so we scampered over to find a place in it. And we waited. And we waited. And we waited. We soon realized that it wasn’t going anywhere, as did others in that line, and like them, we moved.

To a slower line. And soon everyone in line was talking to everyone else. Can you guess the subject of conversation?

And that is when I realized why only half the booths had agents: because other agents on duty practically sprang from nowhere, grabbing customs forms from people and, in many cases, snapping back at them that something wasn’t filled out correctly and that they should do it over. And those were the polite ones.

You know those yellow lines that run along the length of the airport intended to keep people from crowding the agents in their booths? Well, there was one fellow in particular whose job must have been to keep people off the yellow lines. While everyone was waiting for 30 minutes or more to get through customs, some of them shifted positions ever so slightly so they could converse like humans with others in line. In the process, a few of them edged onto, not over, the yellow line! Like a flash, this one agent was all over these people.

“Get back! Get off the yellow line!” he bellowed. You would have thought someone had done something drastically wrong or even dangerous. Alas, all they had done was inch onto the line.

Give me a break.

This country is spending tens, perhaps hundreds of millions of dollars — and my friend Stephen Cloobeck is leading a national effort — to encourage international tourists to choose the United States as a destination, and the best we can do is throw these officious martinets in their face the moment they step onto American soil?

Please, Madame Secretary. I know you can do something about this. You come from Arizona, so I know you are familiar with Las Vegas. So, if your folks need a refresher course (or an initial one) in how to treat the people who help us all make a living, bring them here.

Here is the deal I will make. You pay for the hotel rooms and food, and I will pay for the fortune tellers. Because if you don’t get this figured out, I know what the fortune of the United States will be when it comes to tourism.

There won’t be one.

Brian Greenspun is publisher and editor of the Las Vegas Sun.

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