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Travel industry: U.S. visa system ‘burdensome’

By Karin Zeitvogel

WASHINGTON, May 12, 2011 (AFP) – Travel industry leaders in the United States called Thursday for an end to the “burdensome” visitor visa program, saying it drives tourists and their job-creating dollars to other countries.

“The United States imposes unnecessary barriers on international visitors that inhibit economic growth,” the U.S. Travel Association said in a report outlining ways to increase travel to the United States.

“Specifically, a burdensome U.S. visa system drives millions of potential travelers to other countries at an enormous cost to our economy,” said the report, entitled “Ready for Takeoff.”

The study considered every dollar spent by foreign visitors to the United States to be an export dollar, which makes travel “an easy export industry to expand and a key to closing our trade deficit.”

Increasing the number of visitors to the United States could help to double exports within five years and create 1.3 million new jobs by 2020, the report said.

A key step to achieving that, the study advised, is to do away with what the group called an onerous visa system.

It can take six months or longer for Brazilians and Chinese to get visas to come to the United States.

“Brazil and China are some of the fastest growing economies in the world. Shouldn’t we be getting these people to come to the United States?” said Roger Dow, president of the US Travel Association.

The US visa system has also prevented foreign businessmen from attending revenue-generating trade shows and exhibits in the United States, and some large trade shows and conferences are choosing overseas venues instead of US ones, to ensure that all members of a country’s delegation can attend.

“If somebody from India wants to exhibit something at a show in the United States and we make it so difficult and expensive and inefficient to get to our leading show, there’s another event that takes place in Germany,” said Gary Shapiro, head of the Consumer Electronics Association.

“And the Germans are waiting. They send teams out to recruit international exhibitors. This is economic warfare, and we’re not in the fight.”

According to the Office of Travel and Tourism Industries, which is part of the US Department of Commerce, just under 26 million overseas visitors came to the United States in 2000, and 26.3 million came in 2010 — a one percent increase.

During the same 10-year period, other leading travel destinations saw a 40 percent increase in the number of overseas visitors they welcomed, and the number of global long-haul travelers increased by 61 million, said the American Hotel and Lodging Association.

A report released in 2007 by the Government Accountability Office said that the visa application process was changed in the wake of the attacks of September 11, 2001 on the United States, to increase security,

“But these changes also increased the amount of time needed to adjudicate a visa,” the GAO said.

US officials acknowledged in the GAO report that the long wait for a US visa might discourage travel to the United States and sour “foreign citizens’ opinions of our nation.”

The State Department, which oversees consular activities, has taken steps to smooth out and speed up the visa process, but most fixes are temporary and many applicants still face long and costly procedures, the GAO said.

On Thursday, the travel industry leaders called in their report for President Barack Obama to issue a directive to capture “17 percent of the global long-haul market and match Europe’s share in the Brazil, China and India markets by 2015.”

Their report laid out several steps to help boost visitor numbers to the United States, including bringing down visa wait times to less than 10 days and extending the visa waiver program, which allows citizens of some countries to travel to the United States without a visa.

Neither Brazil, China nor India is included in the visa waiver program. â– 

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