International reform

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A queue of travelers awaited entry into the United States via Chicago's O'Hare International Airport when Steven Hacker returned from a recent trip to China, an immobile line of foreign nationals that to the president of the International Association of Exhibitions and Events represented a segment of the industry's attendee and exhibitor base.

It's an initial rite of passage the IAEE has been working to overhaul. The organization supports the progress of a series of legislative initiatives designed not only to speed entry but to promote the U.S. as a travel destination.

"We have to start seeing foreign nationals not as all potential terrorists but as potential customers," Hacker said.

Earlier this year, the IAEE threw its weight behind the Discover America Partnership. The group is lobbying on behalf of the travel industry to attain reforms that could help the U.S. rebound from a 20% drop in international travel to its top cities since 2001. The loss of visitors came even as a weakening dollar could have bolstered travel.

Measures to reverse the drop could bring an estimated $8 billion to the U.S. each year, according to Oxford Economics, a research firm.

In August, President George W. Bush signed into law measures that could expand the visa waiver program, add new customs officials and beef up welcoming processes to help diminish lines like the one that greeted Hacker in Chicago.

Congress continues to weigh other initiatives, moving forward measures that back the creation of a joint industry-government unit to market U.S. travel.

"We've seen more progress in the past six months than we've seen in the past six years," said Geoff Freeman, executive director of the partnership, attributing the success to the number of business segments supporting the group's initiatives. "It's bigger than tourism."

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