Will Congress get the message that the travel industry can help economic recovery? With air passenger travel predicted to double over the next 20 years and international tourist arrivals projected to grow 36 percent between 2010 and 2020 worldwide, Roger Dow, president and CEO of the U.S. Travel Association, urged Congress to take steps to reduce unnecessary hassles and barriers to travel - moves that will help spark economic growth.
Dow testified before the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Homeland Security in a hearing titled: "Balancing Prosperity and Security: Challenges for U.S. Air Travel in a 21st Century Global Economy."
"Increasing travel in the United States is the most effective form of economic stimulus," said Dow in his testimony. "The principle barriers to increased travel to and within the United States are the inefficiencies, uncertainties and delays that characterize our visa, entry and passenger screening process. These self-imposed restrictions discourage Americans and overseas visitors from traveling to and within the United States."
Dow's recommendations included three areas for growth and opportunity without compromising security:
Implement Risk-Based and Efficient Passenger Screening: The Transportation Security Administration recently launched PreCheck, a trusted traveler pilot program that provides expedited screening for passengers willing to volunteer more personal information. However, barriers are preventing ordinary Americans from joining and using the program. One must either join U.S. Customs and Border Protection's Global Entry program, which requires an in-person interview only offered at 25 locations in the U.S., or one must qualify through an airline frequent flier program, which U.S. Travel estimates would cost roughly $10,000 in airfare paid to a single airline, in a single year, in order to accrue enough frequent flier miles to qualify.
Promote and Expand International Travel: On a worldwide basis, total international tourist arrivals are projected to grow 36 percent between 2010 and 2020, resulting in $2.2 trillion in direct travel spending and 62 million jobs. This presents enormous economic and diplomatic opportunities for the U.S., but two specific areas must be addressed:
Visa Issuance Process: While great strides have been made of late, Congress must play a key role in ensuring that positive reforms the State Department has recently implemented to reduce the backlog in visa processing in Brazil and China are replicated in other countries and that they are sustained over time by codifying a two-week visa processing standard into law. Also, Congress should ensure the State Department works to implement the use of secure videoconferencing technology to interview visa applicants remotely and increase transparency of visa applicant backlog information.
Visa Waiver Program: The most economical and powerful step the U.S. government can take to improve the performance and competitiveness of the visa processing system, while maintaining national security, is to sign bilateral visa-free travel agreements with new countries as part of the Visa Waiver Program (VWP). Recently, U.S. Travel studied the economic impact of including the 11 likeliest candidates for VWP status: Argentina, Brazil, Bulgaria, Chile, Croatia, Israel, Panama, Poland, Romania, Taiwan and Uruguay. Last year, three million visitors from these countries spent $14 billion in the U.S., directly supporting 104,300 jobs in the American travel industry. In the first year of participation in the VWP, the growth rate of visitation from these countries would nearly double. If that first year were 2012, VWP status would generate an additional 482,000 arrivals and $5.1 billion more in total revenue.
Immigration Processing upon Arrival in the United States: How international visitors are treated when they arrive in the United States is just as important as the visa process. The Department of Homeland Security should aim to process all international arriving passengers within 30 minutes at the primary inspection area. This can be done by increasing staff and developing and implementing a comprehensive and automated staffing model to improve passenger facilitation.
"It is unconscionable that in a time of weak economic growth, followed by deep recession, inefficient security and travel facilitation programs caused America to leave so much economic prosperity on the table," said Dow."We cannot afford to make the same mistakes in this current decade."