Industry Takes Aim at U.S. Travel Barriers

 At the Global Travel and Tourism Summit beginning on May 17, the steps the U.S. government must take to break down barriers to bringing business and group travelers to the United States will be high on the agenda.

“We’ll be discussing the things that governments do to actually inhibit the growth of travel and tourism, particularly and taxation and visas—and particularly what the U.S. administration needs to do to improve the visa processes and launch more visa waiver schemes,” said David Scowsill, president & CEO of the World Travel and Tourism Council, which runs the Summit, at a press conference. “We’ll be focused on business travel ... a conversation on not just the importance of business travel, but the effect, when people stop traveling on business, on economies around the world.

Roger Dow, president and CEO of the U.S. Travel Association (USTA), which is a leading sponsor of the show, agreed. “One of the things we’re going to focus on is really U.S. competitiveness,” he said. “That boils down to our current visa system and how we can improve it.”

The USTA recently announced a four-point plan to do this, focusing on reducing backlogs of up to four months in some to the developing world’s fastest-growing economies, and expanding existing visa waiver programs. To put the travel industry’s muscle behind this plan, the travel industry is launching Discover America Partnership II, named after the original lobbying effort that resulted in the creation of the public/privateCorporation for Travel Promotionlast year, the country's first official leisure and business tourism marketing agency.

The Corporation's board today named former Best Western International leader Jim Evans as its first CEO. “Attracting more international travelers to the U.S. will benefit the industry and our country by creating jobs, growing exports and spurring economic growth," said Evans. “I am proud and excited to serve the travel industry—and our country—in carrying out this important mission.”

Virtually all developed nations is a separate government agency, often led by a cabinet-level minister. The corporation is funded by a levy on incoming visitors to the U.S. and matching funds from the travel and tourism industry.

The show, which will be held at the Aria Resort & Casino in Las Vegas—only the second time the Global Travel and Tourism Summit has been held in the U.S. Speakers will include key American officials, including Janet Napolitano, Secretary of Homeland Security, and Ray LaHood, Secretary of Transportation. Other speakers include Mexican President Filipe Calderone, senior executives of airline and hotel companies, international tourism agencies, and the media.

The Visa Bottleneck

If the United States does not solve its Visa problem, it risks “losing out on what economists are calling the worldwide gold rush,” Dow says.

Last Week, the USTA unveiled a new report, “Ready for Takeoff: A Plan to Create 1.3 Million U.S. Jobs by Welcoming Millions of International Travelers” which lays out the four-point plan.

These are:

  1. Aligning State Department resources with the plan
  2. Reducing the visa interview wait time to 10 days
  3. The State Department must improve planning, measurement, and transparency
  4. America must expand the Visa Waiver Program
At the press conference on Monday, Dow noted that the four fastest growing developing countries, Brazil, Russia, India, and China—the BRIC nations—are also the ones with the longest wait times for visas. Hiring 400 more of the consular officials who do visa interviews, which can take less than 10 minutes and pay for themselves with the $140 visa fee, is one key, he says. Another is adding the ability to conduct these interviews via videoconference—Brazil is as large as the U.S. and has only four offices where visa interviews can take place, meaning would-be business or leisure travelers may have to take a substantial trip just to obtain one.

Aside from launching a long-term campaign to free up the visa bottleneck that Dow calls “a self-imposed barrier that is ... driving business to other destinations,” the show will throw a spotlight on Las Vegas as its group business comes back from the hammering it took in the past three years.

Hosting the Global Travel and Tourism Summit will provide Las Vegas with an opportunity to showcase itself as not only the leading leisure destination in the United Stated, but also a place to do business and conduct meetings and conventions, said Rossi Ralenkotter, President and CEO of the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority (LVCVA), adding that the its goal is to drive that to 30 percent in 10 years.

International visitors—the vast majority from the United Kingdom, Mexico and Canada—represent about 18 percent of Las Vegas’ visitors, Ralenkotter said, adding that the LVCVA's goal is to drive that to 30 percent in 10 years.

“On the convention side, because Las Vegas is the place to do business, we have been the number one destination for the Trade Show 250—the 250 largest trade shows held in North America—for the past 17 years. Many of our conventions, such the Consumer Electronics Show (CES), have about 25 percent of their attendees coming from abroad.

The impact that visa barriers have on international participation in industry trade shows and conventions will be the subject of a discussion between Ralenkotter, Dow, and CBS News Travel Editor Peter Greenberg at the WTTC at 9:30 am (PDT) on Tuesday, May 17. It can be followed on the show’s official twitter feed @WTandTC using #WTTC2001.

[Editor's Note: Updated with Jim Evans announcement on May 17.]