The single greatest roadblock to increasing international travel to the U.S. is an inefficient visa system that can discourage visitors from coming to the U.S., the head of the U.S. Travel Association told Congress.
“Promoting America as a desirable travel destination and streamlining the immigration clearance process will not lead to increased visitation if travelers are unable to obtain a required U.S. visitor's visa,” said Roger Dow, president and CEO of the U.S. Travel Association in his appearance before the Subcommittee on Competitiveness, Innovation & Export Control.
The visa process is highly uncertain, lengthy and costly, according to Dow. In some countries, the wait time for U.S. visas can be as long as 100 days. The $140 visa application fee is non-refundable, and applying for a visa is no guarantee that a visa will be issued since nearly 20 percent of applicants are refused.
“The real cost of obtaining a U.S. visa is far greater than $140, particularly when potential visitors do not live near a consular post issuing visas,” said Dow. “Therefore, they must travel hundreds, if not thousands, of miles and pay for a flight and hotel to make a mandatory trip to a U.S. consulate, and then wait hours for an interview that, on average, lasts for three minutes.”
Another disturbing aspect of the visa process is the lack of transparency, even in the way that visa interview dates are issued, U.S. Travel said.
“Some consulates artificially limit the availability of interview dates to cut off the queue and mask the backlog, making it next-to-impossible for people to assess how long they will have to wait before they can actually travel to the U.S.,” said Dow. “How can you schedule a business trip or vacation if you do not know how long it will take for your visa to come through?”
International travel is already America's largest export, representing some 8.7 percent of U.S. exports of goods and services in 2010 and nearly one-fourth of services exports alone. The travel industry's $134.4 billion in exports contributed more than any other industry to America's $1.8 trillion worth of total goods and services exports.
Analysis by the U.S. Travel Association shows that if the U.S. recaptured its historic share of worldwide overseas—or long-haul—travel by 2015, and maintained that share through 2020, it would add nearly $100 billion to the economy over the next decade and create nearly 700,000 more U.S. jobs.
In May, the U.S. Travel Association will issue a report on the U.S. visa process for visitors from Brazil, China and India and offer detailed recommendations for a 10-year strategy to increase U.S. travel exports.