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U.S. tourism industry seeks easier access for travelers

Posted on March 17, 2012
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Easing visa requirements, cutting wait time  at airports and boosting youth travel seen as crucial to sustaining tourism growth

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SUMMIT COUNTY — The Colorado high country could benefit — at least indirectly — from a sweeping effort to boost international visitation to the U.S. under a national travel and tourism strategy being developed by the Obama administration.

The U.S. State Department has already added 100 workers and expanded hours to process tourist visa applications in China and Brazil, both seen as key markets for the U.S. tourism market. A new consular facility in Beijing should increase visa interview capacity by 50 percent, and consular officers in Brazil can now waive interviews for applicants younger than 15 and older than 66.

The U.S. Travel Association believes even more can be done to spur travel, which could potentially add thousands of new jobs and result in millions of dollars in revenue for American businesses.

“The travel industry appreciates the President’s willingness to work together in developing a national strategy for travel and tourism,” said Roger Dow, president and CEO of the U.S. Travel Association. “The economic benefits will be significant. By embracing policies to better promote travel to and within our country, we can attract a greater share of the business and leisure travel market, which will mean billions of dollars more for our economy and hundreds of thousands of U.S. jobs.”

In submitting comments on the national tourism and travel strategy, the USTA declared an overall goal of recapturing a 17 percent share of the global long-haul international travel market.

With global long-haul travel expected to grow by 40 percent over the coming decade, reaching that goal by 2015 and sustaining that level for five years would result in 98 million additional visitors to the U.S. That, in turn, would generate $390 million in direct travel experts and 1.3 million jobs, according to figures from the USTA.

The industry also wants the state department to make online consular service more user-friendly, with visa applications translated into native languages, and wants to see more customer service training for consular officers. A long-term strategic plan for opening new visa offices in high-growth markets is also important to sustain gains in tourism growth, the organization said.

Other recommendations include cutting application for travelers willing to apply during off-peak times, and, conversely, to offer expedited visas at a premium cost, as well as allowing existing visa-holders to renew their documents in the U.S.

Perhaps the biggest single step the government could take is expanding the visa waiver program, which enables foreigners to visit the U.S. without a formal visa.

About 17 million travelers from countries without visa requirements visit the U.S. annually — 65 percent of all visitors in 2010, spending more than $61 billion, supporting 433,000 jobs and generating $9 billion in government tax revenues.

The USTA wants the state department to begin formal bilateral visa waiver negotiations countries including Brazil, Poland, Chile, Argentina and Croatia.

Bipartisan legislation pending in the House and Senate could make it easier for the state department to do just that, while still maintaining security at the border.

Besides easing legal requirements, the U.S. could be more welcoming to travelers by increasing staffing and cutting wait times for entry at airports. The USTA also wants more transparency, with mandated reporting to Congress in airport wait times.

Bob Berwyn

15 Mar 2012

U.S. tourism industry seeks easier access for travelers

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