In an effort to reduce visa wait times for affluent outbound tourists from emerging countries, U.S. officials are planning to bulk up staffing in those countries to better handle the skyrocketing demand.
The long visa wait times in these nations have been a sore spot with meeting planners and exhibition organizers. In Brazil it can take up to 145 days to get a visa, and in China it can take up to 120 days. According to a study by the International Association of Exhibition and Events, problems getting visas precluded 116,000 international participants from attending U.S. meetings in 2010, including some 37,000 exhibitors. That translates into $2.4 billion in lost sales. The U.S. Travel Association and the U.S. Travel and Tourism Advisory Board have recommended ways to speed up the process and have urged the government to act on them.
The federal government has heard the concerns and is working to address some of them, explained Helen Marano, director, U.S. Office of Travel and Tourism Industries, speaking at the Exhibition and Convention Executives Forum, held June 1 in Washington, D.C. One initiative is to bulk up staffing in visa offices in Brazil and China, where travel to the U.S. is growing rapidly. Over the past five years, visas issued to travel to the U.S. jumped 234 percent in Brazil and 124 percent in China.
“We are working to expand staff in China, Brazil, and other posts with high visa demand as quickly as possible and expect officers to be on the ground soon,” said Rosemary Macray, media unit chief, Office of Policy Coordination and Public Affairs, U.S. Bureau of Consular Affairs, Washington, D.C.
“We are also in the initial phase of a new program to hire temporary visa adjudicators, starting with 10 Chinese speakers and 10 Portuguese speakers,” said Macray. This is a pilot program intended to supplement hiring of the traditional officers who do the bulk of visa adjudications overseas, she added. Visa adjudicators have the authority to issue or deny visa applications. “If successful, we plan to expand this program significantly.”
Also, the administration is looking at ways to speed up the interview process for low-risk travelers, she said. “We are trying to accommodate what you are challenged by,” Marano told ECEF attendees. “You are definitely in the focus of the administration.”
“The initiative of the US Travel Association to promote tourism from China, with a focus on affluent Chinese travelers is excellent and will generate a benefit for major branches of the country’s economy: Hotels, restaurants, retailers, transportation.” said Pierre Gervois, an expert on marketing to Chinese tourists and CEO of China Elite Focus.
The good news is that international travel to the U.S was up approximately 9 percent in 2010 and is projected to grow about 7 percent annually through 2016. Travel to the U.S. for business or to attend meetings was up about 12 percent last year and has increased 9 percent already this year. International travel to the U.S. represents 7 percent of the country’s exports and is a major part of the National Export Initiative, which seeks to boost exports by 50 percent by 2015.