Posts Tagged ‘welcome mat’

Rolling Out The Welcome Mat

Sunday, October 30th, 2011

Rolling Out The Welcome Mat

Here’s how the hotel industry is working to ensure that international travelers can get here.

Friday, October 28, 2011

Dan Marcec


Since 2000, international visitation to the United States has dropped precipitously. According to the U.S. Travel Association, the U.S. share of overseas arrivals has fallen from 17 to 12.4 percent in that period, even as worldwide travel grew by 40 percent over the same timeframe. According to the U.S. Travel Association, losing just one percentage point of the total world international travel market potentially costs the U.S. 161,000 jobs.

You may look at that timeframe and chalk it up to the events of September 11, 2001, and the subsequent emphasis on security constraints. But the larger issue goes beyond the War on Terrorism. Before the Travel Promotion Act passed in March 2010, the U.S. had spent exactly ZERO dollars on advertising itself internationally as a travel destination. Now that this legislation is in place, the Corporation for Travel Promotion, as well as myriad partners throughout the travel and tourism industries, are hard at work to make sure the U.S. is on the map for international visitors.

But travel promotion in and of itself is only the first part of the process. If you attract people to come visit and they can’t get in, it basically amounts to false advertising.

“The worst thing in the world is inviting people to a party and the door is locked,” says Nancy Johnson, executive vice president and chief development officer for Carlson Hotels Worldwide, as well as incoming Chair of the American Hotel & Lodging Association (AH&LA). “International tourists want to come to America, and not only the top destinations like New York, L.A., and Disney, but also the mountains, the rivers, and everything in between.

“We need to put that welcome mat out there, and we need to make it easy to visit,” Johnson adds. “Not treating every tourist like a terrorist is essential.”

Headway on the Hill

Diligence from industry advocates like AH&LA and U.S. Travel have paid off. Just last week, Senators Charles Schumer (D-NY) and Mike Lee (R-UT) proposed the Visa Improvements to Stimulate International Tourism to the United States of America (S.1746), or the VISIT USA Act, which is designed to create jobs. The bill amends the Immigration and Nationality Act to make improvements to the U.S. visa process, which is currently one of the largest barricades to international business and leisure travelers coming to the U.S.

According to AH&LA, provisions of this bill that will break down these barriers include:
• Expediting entry for priority visitors
• Introducing technology into the U.S. visa system, authorizing the Secretary of State to conduct a videoconference pilot program as a method for conducting visa interviews of foreign national applicants;
• Encouraging Chinese nationals to travel to the U.S;
• Encouraging Canadian tourism to the United States;
• Encourage U.S. travel during low peak season; and
• Expediting visas for allies not currently in the visa waiver program.

For more information on these provisions, please visit the AH&LA’s government affairs portal

“Increasing the amount of business and leisure travelers to the U.S. brings significant economic benefits to the U.S. economy, and the VISIT USA Act is comprehensive legislation that makes America competitive once again in the $1.1 trillion international travel market,” says Roger Dow, president and CEO of the U.S. Travel Association.

Overall, AH&LA says that bill is a significant step toward the Discover America Partnership’s goal of recapturing America’s historic share of international travel. Last May, a U.S. Travel Association report identified difficulties international travelers experience with the U.S. visa system. The VISIT USA legislation includes several key recommendations in U.S. Travel’s report, which will help the U.S. regain market share in the overseas travel market, potentially creating 1.3 million jobs and producing $859 billion in additional cumulative economic output by 2020.

For more info on Discover America and the economic impact of international travel, please see
Expedited Entry = Agenda Item One

As most people know, traveling through U.S. customs is, to put it delicately, challenging. On top of that, international travelers also have to go through a lengthy, and often inconvenient, interview process to get a visa. That’s precisely the issue political advocates in the industry are trying to impress upon the decision makers in Washington.

“From my point of view, the most important issue we need to resolve is setting a 12-day maximum waiting time for visas,” says Chris Nassetta, CEO of Hilton Worldwide, who has dedicated significant efforts to improving visa issues. “ Getting wait times down is crucial to make us more competitive with other nations, and currently all the important markets we target take far more than 12 days to get approval.”

For example, Marlene Colucci, executive vice president, public policy, for AH&LA, notes that the wait time is up to 150 days in Brazil, one of the key emerging travel markets.

“If you have to wait half a year, it’s going to go by, and you’ll either have to re-plan your trip or you’ll decide to go elsewhere that’s less complicated,” Colucci says. “That’s the decision most travelers make.”

Making use of modern technology can also improve the process. Allowing videoconferencing for visa interviews would expedite visa approval immensely. Colucci adds that she understands the State Department’s preference to interview in person, and that security should always be at the forefront. However, the sheer volume of potential Chinese travelers necessitates a re-evaluation of the process. It can take a several hour trip just to be interviewed for a visa to the U.S., which is a challenge in itself.

“The travel and wait time in China is significant, and if you use this technology that’s already here, it expands the number of people you can interview,” says Colucci.

The International Tourism Facilitation Act, introduced by Senators Roy Blunt (R-MO) and Amy Klobuchar (D-MN), takes into account the State Department’s concerns about videoconferencing, and works to improve the process in an alternative way. Namely, the bill proposes “to incentivize the State Department – without risking security – to improve the visa process by allowing the Department to reinvest fees charged for visas if the Department improves the efficiency with which it processes visas, and allow the Secretary of State, in appropriate circumstances, to grant a waiver of up to 3 additional years (4 years total) for foreigners to renew their tourist visas without requiring the tourist to go through another in-person interview,” according to Klobuchar’s official news release.

“No matter what, we want to make sure the system is responsive to the market,” says Colucci. “Demand is up 234 percent, and we have to respond to the demands of the public.”

The good news is that the issue is being addressed in both houses of Congress and in the administration, but the book is still in its early chapters. From here, it’s up to those in the know in the travel industry to continue to make sure legislators and influential policy makers understand how important this is to the overall economy.

“I’m pleased to see the State Department and Department of Commerce working hand in glove with Homeland Security to finally ‘get it’ and collaborate,” says Johnson. “This is an awakening for America. The people who understand what’s happening have to have their voice heard.”

Nassetta agrees. “We started down this path two years ago in earnest, and there was not wide understanding of what facilitating international tourism meant,” he says. “But now, I think there is fairly wide recognition that this is beneficial to the country, and I think there is a very constructive, productive dialogue that’s occurring that will be impacted by this. If it’s done properly, it’s good for everyone, not just the travel industry.”

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