The US Travel Association: “Visa processing delays hurt US economic growth. Here’s how the Obama administration solved the same problem 10 years ago’

No successful business operator would keep their best customers on hold for a year or more. Yet this is what happens to far too many American customers. Millions of tourists and business travelers languish for months waiting for an interview just to apply for a visa to visit the United States and contribute to our economy.

Huge Wait Times for US Visitor Visas Are Now Average over 400 amazing days for new visitors from critical inbound countries. Visa processing time for the three main sources of American visitors: Brazil, India, and Mexico – are now 317, 757 and 601 days respectively. These excessive visa delays are the equivalent of a travel ban, pushing potential US visitors to choose other countries instead.

A recent Morning Consult survey finds that at least three in five travelers from Brazil, India and Mexico would say “no thanks, I’ll go somewhere else” if they had to wait more than a year for a US visa.

Discouraging travelers from these three countries will cost our economy an estimated $5 billion in lost spending next year, according to our analysis.

In total, visa processing delays could prevent around 6.6 million potential travelers from visiting the United States in 2023, a loss of $11.6 billion. And of course, this figure cannot account for the ground lost in our national efforts to re-establish ties with other countries and improve public diplomacy.

Denying this type of economic activity makes no sense as we stand on the brink of recession and the travel industry continues to rebound from the devastating impact of the pandemic. While domestic leisure travel spending is now above 2019 levels, spending by international visitors to the United States in 2021 was still 78% percent below 2019 in May – and is not provide return to previous levels until at least 2025.

It’s not just major airlines and hotel operators bearing the brunt of lost travel and tourism. Local restaurants, bed and breakfasts, Main Street retailers and countless other businesses depend on visitor spending, not to mention local and state governments that rely on taxes on traveler spending.

To its credit, the Biden administration recognizes the importance of international travel to the US economy. The Department of Commerce National Travel and Tourism Strategyreleased this summer, set a goal of welcoming 90 million international visitors to the United States by 2027. Those visitors would generate $279 billion in economic activity each year.

Unfortunately, the State Department, which is responsible for processing visitor visas, does not act with urgency to achieve the administration’s goals and does not recognize the economic consequences. The State Department says visa processing delays are caused by staffing issues and ongoing pandemic challenges. Fair enough, but that hasn’t stopped travel companies from finding ways to manage their labor shortages while meeting growing demand.

And while the State Department has demonstrated it has the ability to effectively process other visa classifications, the staggering wait times show the agency has not prioritized visitor visa interviews. .

The good news: solutions exist. The United States faced a similar problem 10 years ago and Obama’s State Department solved it. But it required clear guidance from the White House and rigorous congressional oversight to ensure the State Department followed.

To quickly reduce wait times for visitor visas, the Biden administration must make it a clear goal and set specific timelines to achieve it: prioritize the countries that send us the most visitors by reducing interview wait times at 21 days for visitors from Brazil, India and Mexico. by April 2023. And by September 30, 2023, reinstate President Obama’s executive order committing to process 80% of visas worldwide within 21 days.

To achieve the 21-day target, increase the number of new consular officers in Brazil, India and Mexico and reassign staff with previous consular experience in these markets. Process visa applications seven days a week and pilot the use of secure remote video interviews to accommodate more applicants. Streamline simple applications by extending the power to waive nonimmigrant visa renewal interviews to 2024. And set up a dedicated system to expedite visa processing for large tour groups and people attending conventions and events in the United States

Making America a top destination for international travel must be a national priority, and that starts with using all the levers of government to welcome our best customers. With a recession looming, the United States can ill afford to withhold billions of dollars in spending from visitors.

Improving visa processing can be done safely, as we proved ten years ago. The Obama administration effectively tackled excessive visa wait times then — it’s time for the Biden administration to do the same now.

Geoff Freeman is President and CEO of the US Travel Association.

The opinions expressed in comments are solely the opinions of their authors and do not necessarily reflect the opinions and beliefs of Fortune.

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