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Another Opportunity for Bipartisanship – Tourist Visa Overhaul

December 29, 2011

A recent Associated Press report highlighted the economic impact of the decline in tourism revenue since 2001 – over $850 billion. Legislative efforts are underway to address this decline in the U.S.’s share of global visitors which is at 12%. Prior to 2001, the U.S. share of global visitors stood at 17%.

The proposed immigration overhaul has largely been driven by the U.S. Travel Association, the tourism industry’s lobbying giant, and has been endorsed by business titans such as the National Retail Federation, Four Seasons Hotels and Resorts, and Walt Disney Parks and Resorts. Republicans and Democrats in Congress are backing the proposed changes through six bills in the House and Senate.

Geoff Freeman, the travel association’s chief operating officer, said the State Department should be required to keep visa interview wait times at a maximum of 10 days.

For most foreigners, taking a last-minute business or leisure trip to New York, Los Angeles, Miami or other U.S. travel hubs would be nearly impossible. The average wait time for a visa interview in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, for example, was 87 days, according to the State Department.

. . .

The vast majority of visitors enter through the country’s visa-waiver program, which allows travelers from 36 nations with good relationships with the U.S. to temporarily visit without a visa. Travel proponents want to add nations whose residents are unlikely to illegally move to the U.S., including Argentina, Brazil, Poland and Taiwan.

Tourists from the rest of the world, including India, China, Mexico and other nations with affluent travelers looking to use their passports, must obtain a non-immigrant visa. The process can be expensive and time-consuming.

People living far from a visa-processing center must arrange travel to the interview location, not knowing whether they will be approved. Roughly 78 percent of all tourist visas have been approved so far in 2011.

Tourism proponents want the department to embrace videoconferencing as a way to interview more people quickly. The department has no plans to implement videoconferencing interviews because of safety and technological concerns, Ramotowski said.

In-person interviews weren’t the norm before 9/11, when consular officials had the authority to approve travelers based on an application alone. Since then, however, screenings have become more strenuous, with fingerprint checks and facial-recognition screening of photographs.

The Department of State is moving to address increased demand for visas in certain parts of the world. A December 21, 2011 press release highlighted efforts in Brazil and China.

The U.S. Mission to Brazil processed a record number of visa applications – 820,000 – in fiscal year 2011, a 42 percent year-over-year increase.

To meet the surging demand for U.S. visas in Brazil, the Department of State is deploying waves of temporary employees to the U.S. Embassy in Brasilia and U.S. Consulates in Sao Paulo, Rio de Janeiro, and Recife. These employees are helping to process extraordinary numbers of visa applications until permanent staff members arrive. The Department will double consular staffing in Brazil over the course of 2012, adding 50 new officer positions.

With the help of additional personnel, U.S. Mission Brazil has reduced the average wait time for visa interview appointments in Brazil to less than 50 days. While the Department always puts security first, visitors to the United States make critical contributions to economic growth and job creation. That is why shortening visa interview wait times is also a priority – to encourage even greater numbers of Brazilians to visit the United States, a premier destination for travelers from around the world.

The United States and Brazil, the two largest economies and the two largest democracies in the Western Hemisphere, share one of the most important trade and economic relationships in the world. According to the Department of Commerce, more than 1.2 million Brazilians visited the United States in 2010, contributing nearly $6 billion to the U.S. economy. By 2016, the United States could host a record 2.8 million Brazilian visitors.

The United States is also experiencing unprecedented growth in demand for U.S. visas in China, where consular officers processed more than one million applications during fiscal year 2011, a 34 percent increase over 2010. The average wait for visa interview appointments in China is now less than ten days. The U.S. Missions to Brazil and China will continue to reduce visa interview wait times to the greatest extent possible by adding staff and eliminating inefficiencies wherever possible.

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