White House Report Shows Progress for U.S. Travel & Tourism Strategy
By James Shillinglaw
September 19, 2012 11:10 PM
The White House released a progress report from the U.S. Departments of State and Homeland Security that details what has been done so far this year to meet the President Barack Obama’s goal of boosting the travel and tourism industry in the United States.
Earlier this year, President Obama issued an Executive Order on travel and tourism that directed federal agencies to aggressively expand the nation’s ability to attract and welcome visitors, while maintaining the highest standards of security. The strategy’s goal is to attract 100 million visitors a year by 2021, up from roughly 62 million in 2011.
According to the report, the U.S. tourism and travel industry is a substantial component of U.S. GDP and employment, contributing $1.4 trillion in economic activity and 7.5 million jobs in 2011. The travel and tourism industry projects that more than one million American jobs could be created over the next decade if the U.S. increased its share of the international travel market.
The Obama administration is implementing steps, as outlined in the National Travel and Tourism Strategy, to bolster job creation through a range of activities to better promote the U.S. as a tourism destination and make it easier for legitimate foreign travelers to spend their money in the United States, while enhancing the country’s ability to protect Americans from national security threats.
“Every year, tens of millions of tourists come from all over the world to visit America. That’s good for business, it’s good for the economy, and it’s good for our country,” said President Obama. “That’s why, back in January, I announced new initiatives to bolster tourism and promote everything America has to offer and make it even easier for tourists to come and visit, without sacrificing our Nation’s security. I’m glad we’re making progress and I’ll continue to do whatever I can to strengthen the travel and tourism industry and create an economy that’s built to last.”
According to the U.S. Department of Commerce, international travel resulted in $153 billion in U.S. exports in 2011, an 8.1 percent increase from 2010, and is the nation’s largest service export industry. This positive trend has continued throughout 2012 with international tourists spending $13.7 billion in the United States in July 2012 alone, up $350 million or 3 percent from the same month the previous year, and travel and tourism-related exports increasing, on average, more than $1.1 billion a month during the first seven months of 2012. According to the travel industry and Bureau of Economic Analysis, international travel is particularly important as overseas or “long-haul” travelers spend on average $4,000 per visit, which in turn supports and leads to additional travel and tourism-related jobs.
Canada and Mexico remain the greatest sources of international visitors, with consular officers at the Department of State’s 10 visa-issuing posts in Mexico adjudicating more than 1,577,529 visas and border crossing cards from January through August 2012, an increase of almost 33 percent from the same time period in the previous year (Canadian citizens are largely visa-exempt). The Department of State also passed a one million visa milestone not only in Mexico, but also in China, and, just last month, Brazil.
“This actually a case where it is a full government approach on increasing tourism to the U.S. without compromising our security,” said Thomas Nides, deputy secretary of state for management and resources. “We came to a very successful conclusion to allow us to make the announcements we are making today.”
Visa Processing Capacity: According to the progress report, visa-processing capacity is up and wait times are down, especially in the key visitor source countries of Brazil and China. Exceeding the President’s visa interview wait time goal, 88 percent of applicants worldwide are interviewed within three weeks of submitting their applications. In key markets such as China, consular officers are keeping interview wait times to an average of five days in 2012 while managing a year-over-year 37 percent increase in visa demand. Consular officers in Brazil have brought wait times down by 98 percent, from a high of 140 days in São Paulo, to just two days now, while also managing a 37 percent jump in year-on-year demand.
The report also found the visa interview process has been streamlined to save time without sacrificing national security. A pilot program that allows consular officers to waive in-person interviews for certain nonimmigrant visa renewal applicants is operational at 52 visa processing posts in 28 countries. Consular officers also have waived interviews for more than 120,000 low-risk visa applicants.
The State Department is investing millions of dollars to upgrade and expand its existing consular facilities. In China, the department will open a new consulate building in Guangzhou in fiscal year 2013, a consular section in Wuhan in fiscal year 2014. In Brazil, new consulates will open in Belo Horizonte and Porto Alegre by 2014. These investments in infrastructure will increase visa processing capacity in Brazil by 140 percent and in China by 120 percent over 2011 levels. In Mexico, the department continues to invest in new facilities, with new buildings opening in Monterrey in 2014; the Department of Homeland Security also is using new technology extensively at the border to dramatically reduce wait times.
By the end of 2012, the State Department will have created more than 50 new visa adjudicator positions in China and 60 in Brazil, including 43 hired under a new staffing program. With these staff increases, the department met the President’s executive order’s 40 percent capacity increase target in Brazil in June 2012, and will meet the target in China by December 2012.
According to Nides, the State Department has focused on decreasing the time it takes visitors to get a visa, increasing its capacity to issue visas, and actually boosting the number of visas it issues dramatically. For example, it has now reached one million visas each for Brazilian, Chinese and Mexican visitors. “We have taken a whole government approach to increase capacity without compromising security and adding to the economic well being of the country,” he said.
Visa Waiver Program: The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) is currently evaluating Taiwan for Visa Waiver Program (VWP) designation following its nomination by the State Department. Meanwhile, DHS is working with other federal government agencies to increase the number of travelers from VWP countries. The Obama administration said it actively supports bipartisan legislation that would give DHS broader authority to expand the VWP while enhancing the program’s already strong security standards. DHS also is working with partner countries that are currently ineligible for the VWP but willing to complete a number of prerequisites for potential designation, for example the agreements to share information on individuals who may pose a threat to the security or welfare of the United States.
Trusted Traveler Program: The U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) agency has been expanding its Trusted Traveler Program and Pre-Check programs, both of which facilitate travel for air passengers. Global Entry allows expedited clearance for pre-approved, low-risk air travelers upon arrival in the United States; TSA Pre-Check is an expedited screening program at certain U.S. airports. More than 1.5 million people, including over 325,000 new members this year, have access to CBP Trusted Traveler Programs. DHS processed 500,000 more Global Entry passengers in 2012, compared to the same time in 2011. South Korea joined the Global Entry program on June 12, 2012. Global Entry is now available at 40 airports.
As of August 2012, more than two million U.S. passengers received TSA Pre-Check expedited screening at 23 participating domestic airports in partnership with Alaska, American, Delta, and United Airlines and US Airways. TSA expects to bring Pre-Check to a total of 35 domestic airports, encompassing 51 checkpoints, by the end of 2012. U.S. citizens who are members of CBP’s Trusted Traveler programs are eligible for TSA Pre-Check.
“We are pleased that we are on track and we'll exceed the goal of the Executive Order,” said Jane Holl Lute, Deputy Secretary for Homeland Security. Lute said South Korea joined the Trusted Traveler program in June and pilot programs are in place for visitors from Germany, the United Kingdom, while other programs are being developed for countries such as Israel.
More Efficient Border Process: Membership in the joint U.S.-Canadian Trusted Traveler program, NEXUS, at pre-clearance airports, land border, and seaport crossings between the United States and Canada is up 16.4 percent in fiscal year 2012, and DHS is working with Canadian authorities to expand NEXUS facilities and membership. Membership in the SENTRI program on the southern border is up 8.8 percent in fiscal year 2012. NEXUS and SENTRI travelers are respectively processed 58 and 63 percent faster than travelers through general lanes at land borders.
Customer Service Focus: A recent survey of travelers at airports in the Model Ports program -- located at 20 airports representing 73 percent of international aviation travelers at ports of entry -- indicates that 90 percent of travelers agree that DHS's U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) officers are welcoming and provide the right information at the right time in a hospitable manner. CBP port directors identify peak processing periods well in advance based on historical data and real time operational information provided by carriers and airport authorities. CBP uses this data to optimize staffing at Ports of Entry to minimize travelers’ wait times.
The White House said more efficient domestic airport checkpoints benefit international travelers flying within and returning from the United States. In 2011, over 99 percent of federalized airports’ checkpoint operational hours maintained wait times of less than 20 minutes. In addition under the Beyond the Border initiative with Canada, eight Canadian preclearance airports (Calgary, Edmonton, Halifax, Montréal, Ottawa, Toronto, Vancouver, and Winnipeg) are upgrading their checked baggage security equipment to conform to Transportation Security Administration (TSA) standards. As a result, baggage for passengers from these airports who are connecting to other flights in the United States will not have to be rescreened.
Explaining Visa and Port of Entry Process: The State Department has released a video Visit America: It’s Easier Than You Think, which offers information about the visa process. The DHS has, with assistance from Disney, created the video, Welcome to America, Simple as 1-2-3, which explains port of entry procedures for visitors and is seen by over 25 million people each year.
Building Partnerships: The State and DHS are working with the travel and tourism industry to advance the goal of attracting international visitors to the United States. For example, industrial engineers from Disney Worldwide Services, Inc. are donating their time and expertise to evaluate consular sections in Brazil and China, where they will suggest improvements for queue management and other ways to improve the applicant experience. In addition, American Express and United Airlines now reimburse top-tier customers for Global Entry application fee. As of June 30, 2012, American Express has reimbursed nearly 90,000 Global Entry application fees.
Industry reaction to the White House report was quick and positive. “We commend the State Department and DHS for their successes in meeting key goals of the National Travel and Tourism Strategy, including an expansion of Trusted Traveler programs such as Global Entry and Pre-Check, and for dramatically bringing down international visa wait times,” said Nina Meyer, ASTA president and chair. “As the strategy notes, travel agents play a critical role in today’s travel industry, including that of driving international visitors to the United States, so we stand ready to continue our work with the Administration to meet the Strategy’s goals.”
The U.S. Travel Association also praised the efforts made so far to attract more international visitors. “Today’s progress report shows that important steps have been made in our collective efforts to welcome more international visitors and facilitate travel here in the U.S., but we know there is more to be done, such as passing legislation to expand visa-free travel to our shores,” said Roger Dow, president and CEO of the U.S. Travel Association. “Travel, which is outpacing all other economic sectors in job creation by 30 percent this year, plays a critical role in creating jobs and revenue for local communities and states nationwide.”