Posted on January 20, 2012
Travel groups and convention planners are among the groups pressing the United States to change some of its more onerous visa requirements, arguing that the current rules are keeping out many international business travelers and that a faster, more efficient process would help American companies compete in the global marketplace.
The waiting time to obtain a visa in some countries can be up to 100 days, according to the trade group U.S. Travel Association, and travelers who do not live in or near a city where an American consulate is located may have to spend hundreds of dollars in travel expenses for mandatory face-to-face interviews.
“There is nothing, absolutely nothing, about a 100-day wait time to make us any more secure,” Geoff Freeman, chief operating officer of the association. “That is costing our economy dearly.”
Global long-haul travel grew by 40 percent from 2000 to 2010, the association said, but the United States’ share fell to 12.4 percent from 17 percent. The association calculated that by failing to keep pace, the United States lost 78 million potential visitors who would have generated $606 billion in spending.
The association is pushing for legislation that would reduce waiting time for visas by adding personnel and reassigning consular officers to high-demand markets, waiving the in-person interview for applicants who are renewing visas, introducing a pilot videoconferencing program to conduct interviews and expanding the visa waiver program.
In recent months, members of both the Senate and the House have introduced eight bills to stimulate travel to the United States.
In an interview, Deputy Secretary of State Thomas R. Nides said the correlation between visa issuance and spending is undisputed. “We’re very much focused on an ongoing dialogue” that would facilitate legitimate travel and job growth, he said. “But it is a balancing act.” Every decision “has to be made in light of national security,” he added.
But despite increased demand — visa processing jumped 48 percent in China and 63 percent in Brazil in the last three months of 2011 compared with the period a year earlier — the waiting time for visa interviews has decreased. In the meantime, other countries are aggressively courting travelers from countries not part of the waiver program. In July, Canada introduced 10-year multiple entry visas for all countries that require a visa, including Brazil and China, and in August announced the opening of three new visa application centers in Brazil, according to the Tourism Industry Association of Canada, a trade group. “Previous policies were based on our views of the 20th century world and need to evolve,” said David F. Goldstein, president and chief executive.
Shane Downey, director of public policy for the Global Business Travel Association, said a speech at the group’s recent annual convention in Denver that included discussion of visa reform touched a nerve. “We immediately started receiving e-mails” about members’ frustrations, he said.
Steven Hacker, president of the International Association of Exhibitions and Events, said: “When international buyers and sellers try to come and can’t, they go to other countries,” he said. “Ten years ago emerging countries like China, Brazil and India were not nearly as sophisticated as they are today, so there wasn’t much demand.”
He told of a recent exhibition of the Association of Equipment Manufacturers, an event for the construction industry held every three years, when the visa application for one person in a large group was rejected at the last minute, so the whole group was unable to attend.
Gary Shapiro, president of the Consumer Electronics Association, said his organization also loses many visitors at its annual show from markets like China. “I believe the U.S. consulates and embassy in China have been responsive but are understaffed and under-resourced,” he said. “Still, we hear of many visa denials for unknown reasons.”
Christopher Nassetta, president of Hilton Worldwide, had a similar story about the company’s global conference in 2010 in Orlando, Fla., for thousands of owners from around the world representing the 10 Hilton Worldwide brands. “But we had some cases where we could not get owners into the country,” he said. “You can’t throw the baby out with the bath water,” he said, referring to security after the Sept. 11 attacks. “We need jobs. We need economic growth.”
Compromising security is a major concern, said Bruce McIndoe, president of iJET Intelligent Risk Systems, a travel risk management company. “There is always some trade-off. But processes can be put into place to minimize any security risk.”
A bigger issue may be that people from nonwaiver countries will overstay their visa and remain in the United States, he said. Videoconferencing “would be a good service and help facilitate the process,” he added, but document verification, background investigations to ensure that visitors return home, and database checks to identify people with legal problems or known terrorists will still be the most critical measures.
Despite the steps to streamline things, which include sharply increased staff in high-demand areas and drastically increased capacity by providing more windows at offices and extending hours of operation, Mr. Nides said challenges remain. For example, hiring and training consular officers with the proper language abilities and skills to ensure that the “right people, for the right reasons” are issued visas is a sophisticated process that takes time. And the department does not support videoconferencing for security and efficiency reasons.
“But the reality is, as of today, we are at or above pre-9/11 levels,” Mr. Nides said. “We’re continually trying to figure out where the efficient models are. One of the things that is very clear to me is that every visa decision is a national security decision, which is why we take it so seriously. We will set ourselves back if we get it wrong.”
16 Jan 2012