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Foreign visits to US drop sharply

With visa scrutiny to be stepped up Friday, some foresee a still bigger falloff in students, researchers, au pairs, and others.

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From college students to lab researchers to au pairs, America is normally a magnet for millions of foreigners. But this year it's seeing a dramatic drop-off in the number of visitors.

Both tighter restrictions on getting into this country - and a strong disillusionment with the US abroad - are causing tens of thousands of people worldwide to forgo trips to America. Critics say the decline is evidence of a visa-screening process too restrictive, creating a "fortress America." But supporters see that process as essential to protecting the nation in a post-9/11 world.

Either way, the screening will probably only get tighter. Starting this Friday, the vast majority of the roughly 8 million people who apply for visas each year will be required to have interviews in person at US embassies - even if they have to travel many hours to do so. The result is likely to be, for now anyway, even fewer foreign visitors. Already:

• Foreign attendance at US English- language summer classes - usually about 150,000 - is down some 30 percent.

• The flow of au pairs arriving - about 12,000 a year - has slowed by roughly 10 percent in 2003.

• Hospitals are seeing a continued weakness in international-patient numbers, including a 23 percent drop at the world-famous Mayo Clinic since 2001.

• Overall visa applications dropped from 10.4 million in 2001 to 8.3 million in 2002. Visa approvals fell from 7.5 million in 2001 to 5.7 million in 2002.

That trend could accelerate with start of the in-person interview and other new requirements. "If foreign governments imposed something similar on Americans, we wouldn't like it very much at all," says Michael McCarry, head of the Alliance for International Education and Cultural Exchange, a lobbying group in Washington.

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