Last updated: 02:08 PM ET, Tue December 08 2015

What Could Changes to Visa Waiver Program Mean for US Travel?

Impacting Travel | Josh Lew | December 08, 2015

What Could Changes to Visa Waiver Program Mean for US Travel?

TravelPulse file photo

Security is on everyone’s mind after last week’s terrorist attack in San Bernardino. President Obama renewed calls for greater gun control while candidates for next year’s presidential election had plans that ranged from the practical (more funding for intelligence and anti-terrorism) to the absurd (Donald Trump’s idea to ban all Muslims from entering the U.S.). 

One measure has bipartisan support in Washington, but it has the travel industry concerned. Right now, 20 million people, mainly tourists and overseas relatives of American citizens and residents, are able to enter the U.S. easily under the Visa Waiver Program (VWP). Passport holders from 38 countries currently qualify for a 90-day visa-free stay in the US.

Changes coming to the VWP

Who qualifies? Most of Western Europe, Scandinavia, the Baltic states, America’s East Asian allies, and Australia and New Zealand. These countries are obviously not enemies of the U.S. However, there is concern because of the homegrown nature of the terrorism that recently affect France and Belgium.

A number of the people who carried out those attacks were EU citizens. This means that others like them could come to the U.S. as part of the visa waiver program and be free do do whatever they wanted in the country for 90 days without U.S. intelligence agencies having any knowledge that they were there. 

From this perspective, ending this loophole seems like an obvious step to take. However, for people in the travel industry in places favored by foreign tourists, this is worrying news. New York City (namely Manhattan), Florida’s theme parks, the Grand Canyon, Hollywood and Las Vegas get a high amount of tourist traffic because of the VWP. 

Travel industry worries

The New York Times states that VWP travel is crucial to the multi billion dollar travel and tourism business. The House will vote on changes to the program today. The first aspect of the VWP to be voted on are not going to affect the travel industry too much: whether or not people who have traveled to Iraq and Syria in the past five years will qualify for automatic entry into the U.S.

To enforce a ban like this this, however, U.S. immigration officials would have to tighten screening on everyone who comes to the country as part of the VWP. An alternative plan, that also has bipartisan support, would put even stricter measures in place (including fingerprinting requirements). 

The end of the VWP as we now know it is far from a foregone conclusion, however. The U.S. travel industry has seen these kinds of changes coming for some time now. The U.S. Travel Association has spent $2 million on lobbying this year alone. The group is not fighting against all changes to the visa program, but instead wants to make certain that any new facets do not go overboard and are not redundant. 

Potential problems, but hopefully not too many

Still, there are some concerns. One measure would require every overseas visitor to have a chip in their passport that holds their biometric data. Some travelers, including up to five million from Great Britain, do not yet have such a feature. Also, the program already requires people to provide information for security screening before they enter the U.S.

The hope for most in the travel industry is that this screening process, which is already in place, will be enhanced without adding anything else that could make it more difficult for the 20 million travelers who come here annually. These people make up 59 percent of the overseas arrivals in the U.S., so any major changes could be potentially damaging to the travel industry as a whole in the U.S.. 

For now, it is a wait-and-see game for international travelers and the industry. Some of the talk by lawmakers is certainly reason for concern, but, as long as cooler heads prevail in the end, the new version of the VWP should not affect most of the people who travel to the U.S. from the 38 visa waiver countries.  


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