Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Smarter visa policy could create 1+ million U.S. jobs

In an age of nano-second communications, it’s easy to get a foreign photo from Tripoli or Bagdad into our browser in a matter of seconds. But how long does it take to get that photographer into our country?  Would you believe over three months…if at all?

Rossi Ralenkotter of LVCVA (l) and Peter Greenberg of CBS News (r) discuss 
losses to US economy primarily due to visa restrictions
This morning, at the Global Travel & Tourism Summit, a panel of tradeshow association and travel association executives met in a roundtable discussion to reveal the impact of this issue.  According to the report “Ready for takeoff” issued just days ago by the U.S. Travel Association, our inefficient visa policies have cost us 78 million visitors since 2000. The net economic loss equals $606 billion dollars of direct and downstream spending. That equates to almost a half-million jobs per year that never materialized.
Looking forward, the report estimates that between now and the year 2020, if we could only recapture our lost share of worldwide travel, we will create 1.3 million US jobs and increase our economic output by $859 billion.  
Horror stories
The panelists on today’s roundtable told story after story about the difficulties people endure trying to get visas to travel to the United States.  Similar to the way every American airline traveler is treated like a terrorist going through security; our foreign visitors have it even worse.
Roger Dow, president & CEO of the U.S. Travel Association, related how Brazilians often must wait outside our Brazilian embassy, in the sun with no shade, for over three hours before being allowed to enter and request a visa to come visit Disneyworld.
Al Cervero of the Association of Equipment Manufacturers told of a most unfortunate incident where a Nigerian member of their association spent over $50,000 in reservations for their three engineers to attend a construction equipment show. After the fees were paid, all three visa applications were rejected and their engineers were unable to attend.
Cervero also mentioned that during another of his association’s tradeshows, 90 people from Turkey wanted to attend but all were refused entrance visas for the show. Reason given by the US consulate…none given…they don’t have to explain why they were refused.
In another equally outrageous account, the story was told of a foreign family being interviewed by a US embassy official. “Why do you want to come” the father was asked. “I’m attending a tradeshow.” The mother was asked the same question and replied “I’m looking forward to shopping.” The child was then also asked and he responded “They said they would take me to Disney World  while we are there and I can’t wait to go there.”  With that, the embassy official declined their application saying “One of you says you’re coming on business, one of you says you’re coming to shop and one of you says you’re coming for fun. If you can’t even agree on why you are coming, you all are denied.”
Turns out that each embassy sets its own policies and procedures and there is no consistency even within the same country. One Chinese office responds to visa requests within two weeks, another in about 4 weeks and yet another is three months behind.
The Consumer Electronics Show tracks interest from worldwide attendees for its show each year and this past year, over 40,000 buyers wanted to attend but could not get timely visas. The economic loss to US manufactures displaying at that show is staggering when you realize that the only people allowed to attend CES are actual buyers - both retailers and wholesalers. No consumers are even allowed onto the show floor.
According to people with inside information, the U.S. will never again host an Olympic sporting event because of our arbitrary and unpredictable visa process. Supposedly that was the first question posed to President Obama when he tried to lobby for the latest Olympic bid, and all he could answer was that it was a problem “we’re looking into.”
Leaving the station without us
While we continue to bicker between Homeland Security, Commerce Department, State Department, Congress and heaven’s knows how many other government bodies, other countries are swooping in to take our share of the travel and tradeshow business.
China and Mexico have both recently stated that travel and tourism is one of the five pillars of their economic future. They recognize the vast amount of money at stake and are doing everything they can to position themselves as destinations of choice. Unless we improve our technologies and processes for visa approval, we’ll all be traveling to Shanghai instead of Las Vegas for a future Consumer Electronics Show.  

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