Report: Number of foreign travelers to US up, visa wait times fall

In 2011, the U.S. tourism and travel industry contributed $1.4 trillion in economic activity and 7.5 million jobs.  

Foreign travelers, who spend on average $4,000 per visit, spent $13.7 billion in the United States in July, up $350 million or 3 percent from the same month the previous year. 

Overall, international travel resulted in $153 billion in U.S. exports last year, an 8.1 percent increase from 2010, making it the nation’s largest service export industry, according to the Commerce Department.  

The wait time for those seeking visas to the United States has exceeded the plan's target, with 88 percent of applicants worldwide interviewed within three weeks of submitting their applications. 

In China, wait times this year are being kept to an average of five days, even while demand for visas is up 37 percent over last year. 

Wait times in Brazil are down to just two days from a high of 140 days in some areas, while demand is also up 37 percent year-over-year.

An administration official called the reduction in wait times in Brazil a "herculean effort."

Canada and Mexico remain the largest sources of international visitors, with more than 1.5 million visas issued in Mexico through August, an increase of almost 33 percent from the same period last year.  

The State Department also passed the 1 million visa level in China and Brazil, which hit that mark last week, according to an administration official.

By the end of this year, the State Department will create more than 50 new visa processing positions in China and 60 in Brazil, two of the highest-demand markets. 

“The travel data released today shows that tourism remains one of the bright spots in our economy, and the travel and tourism industry is on pace to reach record export levels this year,” said Acting Commerce Secretary Rebecca Blank. 

Earlier this year, Obama issued an executive order on travel and tourism that directed federal agencies to aggressively expand the nation’s ability to attract foreign visitors, while maintaining high levels of security.  

State and Homeland Security departments also are improving the ease of processing for travelers once they arrive in the United States, expanding programs for low-risk travelers.

More than 1.5 million people, including more 325,000 new members this year, have joined programs that allow for expedited entry at 40 U.S. airports.

Meanwhile, Homeland Security is in the final stages of evaluating Taiwan to join the Visa Waiver Program (VWP), according to an administration official.