The U.S. Travel Association claimed significant victories for the U.S. visa system and traveler facilitation reforms in the Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2012, approved late last week.
The legislation reflects 2011 advocacy efforts by the U.S. Travel Association to improve the U.S. economy, remove barriers to travel and improve the travel process.
"This legislation is an acknowledgment by Congress that reforms to the U.S. visa and entry systems and passenger screening process are key to improving our nation's economy," said Roger Dow, president and CEO of the association. "Clearly, the travel community is being heard, and we applaud Congress for addressing these issues," Dow said.
The changes applauded by the association include:
- U.S. Visa System Reform– The Act mirrors a number of recommendation put forth by the U.S. Travel Association in a May 2011 report on the U.S. visa system. That report identified visa wait times, visa validity periods and videoconferencing technology as keys to improving a system that cannot meet demand in emerging economies with growing markets of international travelers, U.S. Travel said.
Initiatives championed by U.S. Travel and included in the consular affairs section of the bill include:
• Visa Wait Time Reductions – To reduce the number of days applicants must wait before their visa application interview, the bill directs the Secretary of State to hire a sufficient number of consular officers, including limited non-career appointment (LNA) officers, in China, Brazil and India. These LNA officers will give the State Department hiring flexibility to meet increasing visa demand in the coming years.
• Better Metrics and Long-Term Planning - Congress directs the Secretary of State to report on the steps it will take to reduce current visa processing wait times but also to submit a 5-year forecast of visa demand in Brazil, China and India. The plan should outline the number of consular officers necessary to meet the Department's 30 day visa processing standard. Congress also directs the State Department to compare its forecast with the Commerce Department's visitor projections in order to allow it to produce better long-term plans.
• Extended Visa Expiration Period – A plan must be developed by the State Department to extend expiration periods for leisure or business visas that require a consular officer interview. The visa validity period for Chinese citizens is only one year, and U.S. Travel has recommended extending the visa validity period to five or 10 years, common with other countries, so business and leisure travelers do not have to undergo the visa renewal process annually and State can better meet demand of new applicants in China.
• Secure Videoconferencing Technology – Congress has cleared the Secretary of State to develop and conduct a pilot program to conduct visa interviews for leisure and business visas using secure remote videoconferencing technology. With limited consular offices in emerging economies such as Brazil, China and India, the addition of remote secure videoconferencing would allow more citizens to apply for U.S. visas.
U.S. Entry & Exit System Reform
U.S.Travel says the Act includes a number of significant improvements to the entry and exit process at U.S. air and land ports of entry.
• Increased Staffing – The bill provides funding to hire an additional 300 new Customs and Border Protection (CBP) Officers to improve processing of inbound travelers at land border crossings and international U.S. airports.
• More Oversight of Operations – The bill requires CBP to report to the Congress on its long-term staffing plans and implementation of key entry reforms such as trusted traveler programs and elimination of unnecessary rescreening of international travelers and baggage.
• Air Exit System – The bill provides $9.4 million to the development of a comprehensive plan for enhancements of a biographic air exit program to bolster security and allow for further expansion of the Visa Waiver Program.
Domestic Aviation Facilitation Reform
The Act makes a series of recommendations designed to improve the efficiency of traveler facilitation including:
• Congressional Reports on Efficiency – TSA must submit to Congress reports on passenger and baggage screening efficiency and on how its workforce is being deployed at the nation's airports to maintain average wait times below 10 minutes. As a recent U.S. Travel survey showed, an overwhelming majority of passengers are frustrated with screening checkpoints. The bill also encourages TSA to utilize privatized screening where more cost-effective.
• Trusted Traveler – To help implement recommendations akin to U.S. Travel's Blue Ribbon Panel on Aviation Security, the bill provides TSA $10M to implement risk-based screening and to expand known-traveler populations beyond the current PreCheck program.
In 2012, the U.S. Travel Association said it will pursue policies on behalf of the travel industry, many of which will create much-needed U.S. jobs and improve the economy. These include legislative vehicles for additional visa system reform, expanding the Visa Waiver Program, enhancing the entry process at ports of entry, and improving the efficiency of the U.S. air travel system.