Charlie Funk
Charlie Funk

I can't remember a time when I wasn't enthralled with all things aviation and science. One of the earliest photos of me (excluding the obligatory baby on a quilt, sans clothing) shows me standing in a stroller and pointing to the sky with a huge smile on my face. My mom remembered that there was an airplane flying over us that had caught my attention.

One of my earliest recollections is a spring-launched rocket ship I received for Christmas when I was 4. I flew for the first time when I was 6, in a red and black Stinson Voyager, and still recall the awe and wonder of it all.

I joined the Civil Air Patrol (CAP) when I was 14 to gain even more exposure to flying and had my first opportunity to offer community service by searching for downed airplanes. It was a most gratifying experience.

At one point I was selected to be part of the CAP Cadet Foreign Exchange program that would send me to Norway for two weeks to live with a Norwegian family and learn about their culture and various youth programs in that country. It was almost too much to comprehend. I was going to travel to another country as an ambassador for the CAP at no cost to me!

The selection process involved a number of lengthy interviews to gain insight into everything about me, from table manners and eating with the proper utensil at the right time to an evaluation of how I would comport myself while away.

One of the interviews was especially memorable because at one point I was asked if I had read the book "The Ugly American," by Eugene Burdick and William J. Lederer.

For those unfamiliar with the book, I need to offer excerpts and my interpretation of parts of it.

Originally meant to be a work of nonfiction, "The Ugly American" was changed to a fictional work about an American engineer, Homer Atkins, visiting a fictional Southeast Asian nation, Sarkhan. While the label of "ugly American" came to mean something rather than originally intended (discussed further on), the central theme of the book revolved around American foreign policy failures due to Americans not rolling up their sleeves and getting involved on a local level with the populace.

One passage recounts a local reporter commenting that the Americans he meets in his country aren't the same as those he knew in the U.S. He goes on to say they somehow seem to change when they go to a foreign country and isolate themselves from the locals and are loud and pretentious.

In fact, "ugly American" became a pejorative for just that person: loud, pretentious, totally oblivious to any local customs or mores, devoid of manners and able to alienate in mere seconds those who host us in their land.

We have all seen them. I confess that a great percentage of my international travel has been on cruises, although I have traveled extensively in Europe on my own. So my favorites tend to come from onboard a ship or in a port of call. Here are a sampling:

  • It's a safe bet your waiter speaks better English, albeit accented, than you do his or her language. But just to be on the safe side, you assume that if you speak in an extremely loud voice, that somehow overcomes the language barrier almost as well as a "Star Trek" translator.
  • Being unfamiliar with a custom or local mannerism, and rather than trying to learn about it, loudly making fun of whatever it is, confirming and reinforcing the speaker's ignorance.
  • Asking a shop owner about the price of an item marked in local currency, "How much is that in real money?" I have personally witnessed this boorish behavior in the Western Caribbean, Germany and Italy.
  • Visiting a country with driving rules that have automobiles on the left side of the road and characterizing the practice as driving "on the wrong side of the road."

It used to be that these ugly Americans had to go to another country to exhibit characteristics that betrayed ignorance of cultural differences. No more.

In less than three months we have become labeled in the minds of some (many?) as a nation that doesn't want visitors from other lands. And before I go a word further, let me be absolutely clear that none of what follows has anything to do with politics or personal feelings. It's about business.

No right-thinking person would ever want to do something that created a dangerous situation for our nation or its populace or put them in harm's way. But there are multiple ways to do just that.

Over the years, I have been far too insular in my approach to commenting on various issues. That stems from the fact that our agency serves clients whom we are sending away, mostly to other countries.

Our agency has had cancellations for travel to a number of countries because of the turmoil created by travel bans involving people coming to the U.S., not leaving it. That notwithstanding, we have clients who are in the U.S. with permanent resident visas who have read and seen reports on TV about others, perhaps countrymen, likewise with permanent resident visas, being denied re-entry to the U.S.

As a result, they aren't booking vacation travel with our agency, or any other for that matter. We are not unique and certainly not alone.

Other clients have abandoned plans for travel to Mexico for fear they would be treated differently by the locals because of the stated intention of the current administration to build a wall along the U.S. border and, adding insult to injury, "make Mexico pay for it."

Are these concerns legitimate or real? Probably not. But they don't have to be. The reality is that our agency lost sales because the client felt anxiety.

As I mentioned, I have been insular in not considering the impact on the tourism industry in the U.S., especially as it relates to international visitors coming to our country. About 70 million people visit the U.S. annually. Some 13 million of them come from Mexico, and while here they spend just over $8 billion. About 20 million come from Canada. They spent about $21 billion while here.

The travel industry in the U.S. accounts for 9 million or so direct jobs and about 22 million indirect jobs.

Although the two executive orders banning visitors from certain countries have been stayed by the courts, there are still examples almost daily of people being denied entry to the U.S. or being delayed entry until they have been put through extensive questioning about religious leanings and have had the contents of their cellphones examined.

Easily the most ludicrous incident I've read about in the last month involved a group of church volunteers from Hamilton, Ontario, on the way to New Jersey to help with the cleanup of debris still remaining from Superstorm Sandy in 2012. Despite having made similar trips in the past, the group was turned back at the Canadian-U.S. border crossing at Niagara Falls, because they didn't have a letter from the host church "paroling" them into the country.

A series of calls to the host church and a hastily faxed letter explaining the purpose of the group and what they would be doing was deemed "not specific enough." A second letter was also deemed unsatisfactory, and the group was advised that, as foreigners, they would be taking American jobs and that there was no pressing need for relief work this long after the storm.

Never mind that people living in poverty don't recover as quickly as those more affluent. This was a group of Canadians who would have spent money in the U.S. in the course of their assistance.

It is estimated that the administration's policies have cost the U.S. $183 million in inbound travel revenue.

Our government has loudly professed its intention to bring jobs back to America. How about protecting the ones that are already here and that are put at risk through ill-conceived, poorly thought-through and even more poorly executed policies and edicts? The U.S. is not the only destination that people from around the world can consider for a vacation. Even a 6% drop in international visitors to the U.S. has the potential to destroy far more jobs than the much-ballyhooed jobs recovered in other industries.

It's like this: Travel is business. It's time to contact our legislators and demand they take charge of the legislative process and put a stop to ill-advised actions that put thousands of travel industry jobs and millions of dollars at risk while doing absolutely nothing to enhance the security of our nation.

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