Travel, retails groups push legislation to boost tourism

The Jobs Originated through Launching Travel Act, or JOLT, is a bipartisan bill introduced by Reps. Joe Heck (R-Nev.) and Mike Quigley (D-Ill.) that would expand the Visa Waiver Program (VWP) and set up a pilot program to test the use of videoconferencing to speed up the interview process for visas.

"Updating America’s visa travel protocol will increase opportunities for international tourists, create jobs and drive valuable tourism dollars to cities across the country,” Quigley said in a statement. 

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Modernizing the VWP, which allows visitors to stay for 90 days without a U.S. visa, would specifically strengthen the nation's national security and enhance relationships with important allies that are looking to gain access to the program. 

Some lawmakers have raised concerns about visitors overstaying their planned vacations.  

But Quiqley said the bill would update eligibility criteria for applicant countries, requiring a low overstay rate, set at less than 3 percent of foreign nationals who remain in the United States. 

President Obama has formally endorsed expanding the VWP and included comparable language in his comprehensive immigration reform proposal this year.

Dow said the expansion of VWP to countries such as Argentina, Poland, Israel, Chile and Brazil could boost tourism by 4 million visitors a year, supporting nearly 300,000 jobs and injecting more than $45 billion into the nation's economy. The program provides visa-free entry to travelers from 37 countries.

Christopher Nassetta, Hilton Worldwide's president and CEO, said the bill has the "potential to create an immediate stimulus to our economy by adding millions of new tourism dollars and thousands of new jobs." 

"Recently we’ve seen impressive results from modest improvements to the visa processing system, so it’s clear that we can build significantly on this momentum by allowing more of our long-time ally nations into the Visa Waiver Program," he said. 

"We look forward to swift congressional approval of this legislation, and to welcoming many new visitors to our country’s extensive attractions."

The measure also calls for the expansion of the Global Entry program that expedites entry to pre-approved, low-risk international travelers, as well as continuing to reduce visa wait times to high-demand countries such as China, Brazil and India. 

"With the average international tourist spending well over $4,000 shopping in our stores, staying at our hotels, and eating at our restaurants, efforts aimed at encouraging more foreign travel is a simple way to spur economic growth and job creation," said NRF President and CEO Matthew Shay. 

"This is especially true in the retail industry."

Shay noted that the Obama administration has made "great strides in reducing visa wait times over the past year but more can be done to tap into the hundred billion dollar international tourism and travel market."

"The important reforms in this bill would address key barriers in the visa processing system that deter international business and leisure travel to the United States,” said Bruce Josten, executive vice president for government affairs at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.