The Visa Waiver Program (VWP) permits travelers from participating countries to visit the United States for up to 90 days without obtaining a non-immigrant visitor visa. This program is in place to facilitate and promote overseas travel to the U.S. while also allowing the State Department to shift visa screening sources to higher risk areas. There are currently 36 participating countries receiving this distinction, but some of the world’s largest sources for potential visitors are not included.
Tourism is the United States’ largest service export, and the U.S. Travel Association is proposing expanding those participating countries to include Brazil and Chile. It believes there is tremendous potential for direct and indirect spending for American businesses via tourism from these two emerging countries. The current system is believed to dissuade many potential tourists due to the time and hassle required to obtain a travel Visa. Potential Brazilian visitors, for example, often wait up to 100 days for a visa interview appointment and must pay a significant amount of money to travel to a U.S. consulate for the interview.
Status (as of 4/27/11):
The Senate Commerce Subcommittee on Competitiveness, Innovation and Export Promotion held a hearing on April 5, 2011 focused on the importance of tourism to the U.S. economy and the implementation of the Travel Promotion Act (TPA). During the hearing, Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) stated that to take advantage of new visitors, the State Department and other agencies need to cut red tape to increase the speed of visa applications for foreign travelers so that the U.S. can better compete with other destinations worldwide. Another hearing on the issue is expected on May 5, 2011.
There were some positive developments coming out of President Obama’s most recent trip to South America. The U.S. and Brazil announced they will sign an open skies agreement to increase air traffic between the two nations. Pres. Obama also noted that the two countries have begun to discuss reforming the visa rules for travelers between the U.S. and Brazil. While in Chile, the President stated that the U.S. would continue to work with Chile on the necessary steps for them to enter the VWP.
Sen. Mark Kirk (R-Ill.) and Reps. Dan Lipinski (D-Ill.) and Mike Quigley (D-Ill.) plan to introduce the Secure Travel and Counterterrorism Partnership Act in the Senate and House. This legislation will attempt to update VWP requirements.
The AGA and its travel industry partners also are working with the President’s export council on travel issues related to visa problems and visa waivers.