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Anything to Declare?

Friday, November 18, 2011

For years, the health care and high-tech industries have been complaining about how hard it is to recruit foreign workers given the difficulty in obtaining H-1B and other visas. Well, you can add the travel industry to those who would like to see more liberal visa issuance.

U.S. News and World Report notes that more Chinese nationals now visit France than the U.S. Part of the United States’ relative decline in this area is attributable to the difficulty and expense in obtaining tourist visas at foreign posts in China. This is also a problem in India and Brazil, countries whose citizens, like those of China, are traveling abroad in ever increasing numbers.

The U.S. tourism market is healthy in some respects; according to the U.S. Department of Commerce’s International Trade Administration, visits from Canada, France, Japan, Brazil, South Korea, Australia and Italy all registered double digit increases in 2010 over the year previous. One thing helping the U.S. is a weaker dollar compared to many foreign currencies. The Canadian dollar is now roughly par with the U.S. greenback, but U.S. prices are cheaper, and Canadians are taking advantage of it. They made some 20 million visits to the U.S. in 2010, roughly a third of the global total.

After Canada, the leading countries for visitors to the U.S. are Mexico, the United Kingdom, Japan, Germany, France, Brazil, South Korea and Australia. Conspicuous by their absence on this top 10 list are China and India. True, visits from these countries increased significantly in the first decade of this century, but the U.S. share of tourism from China and India declined. The reason? Tourism is a commodity with a high substitution rate. Very few people “need” to go to France, Jamaica or the U.S. If it is overly expensive or dangerous, or there are significant barriers (like obtaining a tourist visa) to visiting, then travelers will choose to go elsewhere. A natural disaster, political unrest or terrorism spell disaster for a local tourist industry, but so do burdensome visa requirements.

Visas are not a problem for our Canadian friends who are exempted from the visa requirement, but they are a major issue in attracting Brazilian, Chinese and Indian visitors. These are high-value tourists who do not skimp on hotels, restaurants, and attractions. They also buy a lot of merchandise. (Oddly, many Chinese like shopping in the U.S. because the Chinese-made goods they purchase are much cheaper than at home).

The U.S. Travel Association estimates that restoring the United States’ historic share of worldwide overseas travel would generate as many as 1.3 million U.S. jobs by 2020, and result in an increased cumulative economic output of $859 billion. There may be some hyperbole in these numbers, but it seems obvious that when a country of 22 million people like Australia sends more visitors to the U.S. than China or India, and barely more than Brazil, there is room for improvement. To this end, the U.S. Travel Association, whose leadership committee includes the American Hotel & Lodging Association, the National Restaurant Association, the National Retail Federation and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, has developed a program dubbed "Ready for Takeoff.”

The program consists of the following pillars aimed at increasing visitors from China, India and Brazil:
  • Align visa resources with market demands
  • Reduce visa interview wait times to 10 days or fewer
  • Improve visa planning, measurement and transparency
  • Expand the Visa Waiver Program to include Brazil, Argentina, Chile, Poland and Taiwan
In order to accomplish the above goals, the U.S. Travel Association recommends opening more consulates abroad to process visa requests, adding (and better training) consular workers, and employing technology to make visa issuance faster, easier and more consistent. The goal: having the U.S. match Western Europe’s market share in travel from China, India and Brazil by 2015.

As it stands, prospective visitors from these nations are faced with an expensive, time-consuming, and confusing process which requires fingerprints, completing applications in English, and often a substantial journey within their own country to get to a U.S. consulate for an interview. Going on vacation shouldn’t be such hard work! Treating citizens of China, India and Brazil as clients or valued guests, not as bothersome interlopers, would go a long way in boosting visitor numbers. The economies of these nations remain strong, and whatever problems the U.S. might be experiencing, last time we checked, the Grand Canyon, Disney World, and Times Square were still operational, so time to roll out the welcome mat to travelers from points east and south.

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