Originally published Monday, September 19, 2011 at 4:22 PM

Guest columnist

Boost Washington jobs by reforming U.S. visa system

Guest columnists Tom Norwalk and Darrell E. Bryan argue that the U.S. visa system should be reformed to make it easier for international travelers to come into the United States. Canada and European countries are reaping the benefits of an easier system for travelers from China and elsewhere.

Special to The Times

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THE U.S. Congress is contemplating how to put people back to work without increasing spending or raising taxes. We have one idea: Reform the nation's antiquated visa system to increase the number of overseas visitors to the U.S., creating more than 1 million new American jobs during the next decade without a dime from taxpayers.

Travel is already one of America's largest industries, generating $1.8 trillion per year. Here in Washington, 143,800 people work in travel-related jobs that can never be outsourced. Statewide tourism generates $4.3 billion in earnings, visitor spending of $15.2 billion, and $1 billion in state and local tax revenues.

The problem is, the U.S. has been falling behind in attracting overseas visitors. For example, the Victoria Clipper carries travelers between Seattle's waterfront and Victoria, B.C. The excursion relies on travelers who can easily move from one country to the other. But many travelers to Canada don't have U.S. visas and can't cross the border.

Prospective visitors to the U.S. from rapidly growing markets such as China, India and Brazil are often forced to wait more than three months to secure a visa. A family from Brazil's eighth-largest city, Manaus, must travel 1,250 miles for a three-minute interview, spending thousands of dollars without any assurance they'll actually get a visa to enter the U.S. But if they go to Europe, they don't even need a visa for trips lasting less than 90 days.

In the burgeoning China tourism market, countries like France and the United Kingdom are out-competing us even though the U.S. is often cited by Chinese travelers as their top destination.

The U.S. has only five consular offices capable of processing U.S. visas in all of China, leaving 27 Chinese cities with populations of more than 2 million with no local access to a visa. Also, U.S. visas to Chinese nationals are good only for a year, compared with 10 years for most countries. And it's difficult for operators of group tours to secure visas for everyone on the tour.

Chinese group-tour operators and travel agents tell us that Canadian visas are routinely procured in just a week, or up to two weeks during the high summer travel season. For them, doing business in that market is more consistent and viable than in the U.S.

We join the U.S. Travel Association in calling on the U.S. State Department to reform the visa system, especially for China. The validity period for visas should be expanded to match the rest of the world. Changes should be made in consular operations so wait times for visa interviews are reduced. And group-tour operators should be allowed to apply for visas for their Chinese clients.

The costs of upgrading and modernizing our visa system would be paid for by fees paid by international visitors, with no additional cost to the taxpayer. Simply winning back our share of the global long-haul travel market to 2000-2001 levels would create 1.3 million new American jobs by 2020 and add $859 billion in economic output.

In a lackluster economy still struggling to create jobs, few initiatives offer more bang for the buck than smarter visa policies that will bring millions of additional international visitors to the United States.

Tom Norwalk is president and CEO of the Seattle Convention and Visitors Bureau and a U.S. Travel Association board member. Darrell E. Bryan is president and CEO of Clipper Navigation Inc. and a founding board member of the Washington Travel Alliance.


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