From the natural beauty of the Grand Canyon to the whimsical
ingenuity of Disney World's Magic Kingdom, the United States is a
land of world-class attractions. But it isn't always easy for
foreign travelers to get here. Too often, a cumbersome U.S. visa
process has encouraged travelers from countries such as Brazil and
China to spend their money at other international destinations.
Now, however, President Obama has unveiled a major initiative to
streamline the visa process and welcome travelers to the United
States. For the first time, the United States will have a national
strategy to make America the top destination for travelers
With the Magic Kingdom castle as a backdrop, President Obama told
travelers from around the world, "We want to welcome you." He signed
an executive order calling for expanded "trusted traveler" programs,
faster visa processing, and a government-wide initiative to welcome
visitors to the United States.
This announcement couldn't come at a better time. International
travel can and should play a crucial role in boosting U.S. GDP and
creating much-needed jobs. Travelers come here, spend money, fuel
local businesses, don't consume public resources, and return home to
tell their friends what a great time they had in the United States.
Yet America has been losing ground in the global competition to
attract international travelers. Between 2000 and 2010, America's
share of the international travel market fell from 17 percent to
If the United States had held onto that 17 percent market share over
the past decade, 78 million more travelers would have contributed
$606 billion in additional U.S. GDP and supported 467,000 more
If we recaptured that 17 percent share, it's estimated America would
see 1.3 million new jobs and an increase in additional economic
output of $859 billion by 2020.
One of the biggest obstacles, which the president's executive order
addresses directly, has been a cumbersome and outdated visa
application process. Now, potential visitors who pose no conceivable
danger to the United States, especially from such booming "emerging
markets" as Brazil and China, will be able to obtain visas more
quickly and with less difficulty. Travelers from Taiwan will join
those from 36 countries who are able to come to the United States
under the Visa Waiver Program, which means they need only present a
valid passport to gain admission to the United States.
In too many countries, the U.S. simply hasn't had the presence it
needs to meet demand. For example, in China, with a population of
1.3 billion, consular services have been available in only five
cities. That leaves 20 cities with populations of two million or
more without a U.S. consulate. Compare that to the U.K., which
offers consular services in 12 Chinese cities - and the U.K. doesn't
even require an in-person interview for its visa applications.
The result? Lost economic activity for the United States. In Europe,
the number of Brazilian visitors increased by 163 percent once they
no longer had to obtain visas in order to gain entry. Our failure to
offer Brazilians similar access has cost the U.S. an estimated $5
Sixty five percent of travelers to the United States currently come
under the Visa Waiver Program. Expanding the program to include
countries such as Poland, Chile, Argentina and Brazil would have a
dramatic economic impact.
The president's announcement is a huge step toward a more welcoming
United States as destination for international travelers. His
initiative will rightly garner bipartisan support, as a robust
travel industry benefits all Americans.
Now, it's Congress's turn. It's time to take up recently introduced
legislation that directs the State Department to develop accurate
visa demand projections and a consular officer hiring plan to meet a
12-day maximum standard for visa processing.
Other worthwhile proposals to expand access include the use of
videoconferencing technology for visa interviews, longer visa terms
and expedited processing for travelers willing to pay a premium.
For the United States, international travelers represent "free
money." With a small investment in improving their access, we could
reap a huge return.
Roger Dow is President and Chief Executive Officer of the U.S.
Travel Association, the national umbrella organization representing
all segments of the U.S. travel and tourism industry.