US Tourism Advocates Call for Visa Reform

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America's focus on the war on terror since 9/11 has contributed to the United States losing billions in foreign tourism dollars.

Now, many believe the United States should view international visitors as an economic opportunity rather than as a security threat.

In particular, the United States has been focusing on attracting travelers from Brazil, China, and India.

Attracting Visitors

Daniel Cabral is typical of the kind of visitor the United States wants to attract. He works in marketing in Recife, Brazil, and travels to the States periodically for his job.

If possible, he'll add several vacation days to his trips to sight-see and shop. 

"It's really good for us Brazilians to go shopping in the U.S. because the prices there are really low," Cabral told CBN News.

In fact, foreign visitors to the United States represent big money here. Last year, they spent $150 billion.

Brazilians top the charts, spending approximately $5,000 per visit.

"It's a perfect relationship in many ways," Usha Pitts, principal officer at the U.S. Consulate in Recife on Brazil's northeast coast, said. "We need their tourist dollars and they're looking to spend." 

Consular Section Chief Lesley Hayden said shopping drives much of that spending.

"Anyone who's traveling to and from Brazil can bring two suitcases up to 70 pounds each way," she said. "So what Brazilians do is they travel to the U.S. essentially with empty suitcases. They fill them up and they travel back to Brazil."

Even as economies around the world are struggling, global travel is growing.

Dr. James Carafano, director of the Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign Policy Studies at The Heritage Foundation in Washington, D.C., said the value of global travel is expected to double in the next 10 years to more than $2 trillion. 

The problem, however, is that the United States' share of that is shrinking. The U.S. travel industry calls the years following 9/11 "the lost decade" because tourism numbers fell off as America shifted to more of a fortress mentality.

In 2000, the United States commanded 17 percent of the world's international travel. As of 2010, that share had shrunk to just 12 percent. 

Visa Reform

Carafano and many in the travel industry believe a laborious visa process is one reason the United States is losing its share. They're calling for visa reforms that promote travel to the States without compromising security. 

In many countries, would-be travelers to the United States must not only get a passport, they must obtain a visa. Getting that visa can take months.

Often, it's impossible to make last-minute business or vacation plans. It's also often expensive to get a visa. In countries like Brazil, citizens may have to travel days just to reach the nearest U.S. consulate or embassy.

Blain Rethmeier, senior vice president for public affairs and government relations at the U.S. Travel Association, said getting a visa can be an impediment to travel.

"You have to go through a lengthy application process and also have an in-person interview with a consular office to be approved for a visa," he explained.

On a recent Wednesday morning outside the U.S. consulate in Recife, about 50 people lined up before 7 a.m. to process their paperwork. CBN News met Bruno Texeira in the line.

"My city, I can't take the visa there," he explained. "So I've got to travel to here and spend two days here."

The process, Rethmeier said, has lured many travelers away from the United States.

"What we've seen with some Brazilian tourists is they're actually going to countries where they don't have to get a visa, countries like France, countries like Germany," he said.

White House Takes Action

At Walt Disney World in January, President Obama announced that the United Statse will cut visa wait times in Brazil and China by 40 percent in the next year.

Since then, the State Department has added extra staff and wait times are already dropping. In Recife, for instance, it used to take 60 days to get a visa. It now takes two.
   
There's also support to add more countries such as Brazil to the Visa Waiver Program (VWP). The program allows travelers to come to the United States with just their passport.

The State Department is working to add Brazil and Taiwan to the list of 36 countries that already participate. Presidential candidate Mitt Romney is also calling for Poland's inclusion.
   
Carafano and Rethmeier said there's bi-partisan support for such a push because travelers from visa-waiver countries are actually less of a security risk than travelers from visa countries.

The reason: visa-waiver countries must agree to specific security protocols, share lost and stolen passport information with the United States, and have a low visa refusal rate to begin with.

"The U.S. knows more information about someone coming from a country where you don't have to get a visa, ironically than a country where you do," Carafano noted.

More Tourism, More Jobs

For Cabral, the State Department's efforts have already paid off. When he applied for a visa in May to visit America it took him just two weeks. 

"I told my friend, all my friends, about my experience," he said. "They are all trying -- even my family -- they are getting their visas now because of the facilities."

Bringing in tourists becomes a greater priority with the current unemployment rate. That's because more tourists means more American jobs.

The U.S. Travel Association estimates that every 33 overseas visitors from Brazil create one job. So, the more people who visit, the more Americans will get back to work.

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Heather Sells

Heather Sells

CBN News Reporter

Heather Sells enjoys reporting on a variety of issues for CBN News. Some of her recent stories have focused on religious liberties, technology, AIDS, overseas missions, domestic trafficking, and politics.  Follow Heather on Twitter @SellsHeather and "like" her at Facebook.com/HeatherSellsCBNNews.