American Times Washington: Customs changing habits of a lifetime Airport discovers `Have a nice day'

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The Independent Online
UNTIL VERY recently, Dulles international airport, the portal to Washington for the rest of the world, was a standing joke. Washingtonians could not take seriously such a countrified airport; they preferred, and still do, Washington National (controversially renamed after Ronald Reagan last year), a bare 10 minutes' drive from the city centre.

Foreign visitors found it hard to take Dulles seriously either. Compared with the bustling commercial centres that many other world airports have become, Dulles was an echoing outpost. If you conducted one of those experiments that reporters and researchers try from time to time - set off from such and such an airport with no luggage and see how feasible it is to equip yourself at the airport - Dulles travellers would have emerged a pathetic little band. Wearing next to nothing but a DC baseball cap and T-shirt, they might have carried a copy of The Washington Post and a can of Coke, and felt very, very hungry.

Now, Dulles is catching up. Its commercial assets are a far cry from those at Heathrow, or Frankfurt or Dubai - as are those of many US airports, strange for a land grown rich on free enterprise. But you can now just about feed yourself and you may soon be able to buy something practical to accompany the reading matter and souvenirs, and even a suitcase to put it in.

If the facilities at Dulles still fall short of what might be expected of an international airport at the end of the 20th century, these deficiences used to pale in comparison to the quality of what I hesitate to call the "welcome".

True, immigration and customs officers rarely exude warmth: that is not what they are there for. But the sullen hostility shown by many guardians of the US borders was hard to match. Perhaps so large and self-contained a country felt no need to be nice to visitors: surely entering the United States was an honour and a privilege? Tourism? Foreign trade? Who needs it?

I first noticed something was changing about 18 months ago. Returning to Washington with my (American) husband, and passing through the "US citizens" channel with him (as is accepted practice), the immigration officer examined our passports. Turning to my husband, he said with the barest hint of a smile - I still remember the exact words, they were so novel - "Welcome home, sir." Since then, he has invariably been welcomed back to the land of his citizenship.

A couple of weeks ago, arriving at Dulles alone, I was again surprised - not once, but twice. The immigration officer, (in the non-US citizens channel), examined my visa, asked me what I did, and said with another half-smile: "Welcome back."

Heading into the baggage and customs hall, I could only stare in wonder. Hung across one wall was a vast blue and white banner that said: "Welcome to the United States - the US Customs Service." At the exit was a little stand of questionnaire cards - "for your comments" about US Customs.

It transpires that Dulles is a pioneer, with New York's Kennedy airport and Miami international, in a project to make US Customs less intimidating. Officers have their orders to be polite and not over-officious and - after a crescendo of complaints about the confiscation of packed food such as salmon and salami bought at airport duty-frees - to try a little consistency. Not so long ago, I was upbraided for not declaring a box of chocolates as "food" (though "this once" it would not be confiscated).

But the charm offensive does not mean regulations have been relaxed. You may still not bring into the US so much as an apple lest it contaminate the mighty agro- industrial complex. Foreign delicacies, such as cheese and salami, are still proscribed. But at Dulles, at least, the automatic suspicion that a foreign visitor is a potential enemy of the state appears to have been tempered.

And Dulles may have the last laugh over its local critics as well. A decade of rapid commercial growth, spurred by the airport, has put this "non-place", named after Secretary of State John Foster Dulles, on the map. The maze of anonymous trading estates, start-up companies and hotels radiating from the airport is now sprouting shopping centres and housing.

With development space closer to Washington being exhausted, new settlements are coalescing around the airport. Before long, it will be an identifiable place, perhaps even a town: a town called Dulles.