In 2002, 1,076,039 foreign tourists went through customs at McCarran International Airport, including more than half a million who flew directly into the airport aboard international airlines like Virgin Atlantic and Japan Airlines.
But starting in January, under rules adopted by the Department of Homeland Security, every passenger arriving in Las Vegas on an international flight will have to be fingerprinted, with the data sent to a national computer database.
The fingerprinting of all foreign tourists will help identify possible terrorists and convicted felons who enter into the United States, federal officials said. The prints will also be used to identify the foreigners on return visits here.
But travel industry officials are worried that the fingerprinting will disenfranchise foreigners during their American vacations.
The Travel Industry Association of America told Congress last week that the Department of Homeland Security is not prepared to help foreign tourists get through long lines without annoying them and interrupting their trips.
"The government’s estimates of how many people this will take (to police) are grossly optimistic," said Edward Fluhr, manager of legislative affairs for the travel association in Washington. "Without adding more people, this will cause delays at the airport."
As of January, the department will require that every non-U.S. citizen entering the United States by air pass their index fingers over a biometric scanner that will record their fingerprints for permanent storage in a database to aid federal investigators.
By October 2004, the department will require that all foreign countries provide their citizens traveling to the United States with biometric identification data embedded in their passports and visas.
Fluhr said the department needs to do a better job of communicating to people who visit America from overseas about the new security regulations.
"We recognize the use of biometrics to deter terrorism," he said. "But they need the resources to make sure that they can do what they say, and to communicate about it to the international traveling public. Having a press conference and slapping it on a web site is not enough."
McCarran airport spokeswoman Hillarie Grey said she has not been contacted by the federal government about the fingerprint requirement.
But Grey said that most foreign air travelers arriving in Las Vegas have already entered the country at an airport in another city, so they probably won’t have to be fingerprinted a second time in Las Vegas.
"We don’t have a large percentage of direct international flights," Grey said.
The foreign air carriers that fly directly into McCarran include Virgin Airways, Japan Airlines, Sky Service, Air Canada, and several airlines from Mexico. Air Canada brought in the most tourists over the first five months of 2003: 32,491.
From January to May, the airport processed 216,376 tourists who arrived at McCarran in flights starting in other countries, according to figures provided by the airport. In May alone, 36,874 foreign visitors arrived at McCarran from foreign airports.