The US could easily improve global travel, but sadly, it won’t

Politics as usual.
Politics as usual.
Image: Reuters/Kevin Lamarque
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The United States federal government has been significantly late to recognize and enact ways to encourage and facilitate more international travel to the US. It allowed visa processes to remain lengthy and unorganized abroad, and left marketing to state, regional, and city tourism boards.

It’s recently taken several steps to improve America’s attractiveness as a tourist destination by expediting visa procedures in emerging economies and launching Brand USA and marketing campaigns overseas. But it can still do better.

A number of travel and tourism initiatives were recently added to an immigration reform bill that passed through the Senate in June. The bill, now stuck in the US House of Representatives and the White House, is in full force touting the economic benefits of the “commonsense” reform.

The White House updated its blog on Aug. 20 with a post outlining the initiatives that would spark tourism and the economy should the bill be passed by the House.

In 2012 alone, US tourism and travel industry accounted for $1.4 trillion in economic activity and supported nearly eight million jobs.

More efficient visa procedures overseas have already increased the number of tourists from emerging economies. And the White House expects the number of Chinese tourists visiting the US to increase by as much as 229% over the next few years.

The following six initiatives to boost tourism and strengthen border security are included in the immigration reform:

1. Expand the Visa Waiver Program, which allows citizens of participating countries to visit the US without a visa for 90 days or less, to include more countries. There are currently 37 nations participating in the program.

2. Allow the State Department to waive visa interview requirements for low security threat travelers in order to give more attention to higher risk travelers. The State Department will have to consult the Department of Homeland Security before lowering requirements.

3. Expand Trusted Traveler programs to expedite domestic and international travel for pre-approved, low risk travelers. Current programs include Global EntryTSA PreCheckNEXUS for Canadians, and SENTRI for Mexicans crossing the border by land.

4. Authorize the State Department to find additional ways to expedite visa interviews. Remote video interviews are now being discussed as one possibility.

5. Increase the number of US Customs and Border Protection officers by 3,500 over the next four years. This is expected to create 115,000 new jobs and add $7 billion to the US economy every year, according to this independent report (pdf).

6. Permanently authorize Brand USA and its marketing efforts abroad. Brand USA is currently entitled to receive a maximum of $100 million per year in matching funds through September 2015. Read more on its continual funding threat here.

As sensible and non-controversial as these six points are, it is highly unlikely that the current Congress will move the bill through as-is. The current Republican leadership and its rank-and-file members have become well-known as one of the most intransigent group of lawmakers in US history and will readily vote against things they agree with in order to prevent their opponents from being able to claim any manner of victory. Even if that means hotels, restaurants, and attractions in their districts suffer as a result.

While the financial benefit to businesses of allowing these small reforms is clear, the political hurdles may be too high to get past.

Samantha Shankman is a reporter at Skift.

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