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Why the Biden team should prioritize tourist visas and international travel

Family members embrace each other as they are reunited upon arrival on a flight from Amsterdam as the U.S. reopens air and land borders to vaccinated travelers for the first time since the COVID-19 restrictions were imposed, at Dulles International Airport in Chantilly, Va., on Nov. 8, 2021.

Even in the face of inaction and finger-pointing that most Americans have come to expect from our leaders in Washington, there are still agreements on baseline policies that can cut across party divisions on Capitol Hill, and whose economic benefits are clear-cut. Better still, the Biden administration can move unilaterally — as long as Congress doesn’t put up unnecessary obstacles.

Tackling the problem of foreign visitor visas fits this bill perfectly, especially because the topic of tourists from around the world coming to the United States is separate from the controversies surrounding the migrant situation on the southern border.

For many years, millions of visitors have come to America — prior to the pandemic slowdown, an average of about 215,000 visitors every day, according to the U.S. Travel Association. Visitors were responsible for an economic boon totaling $155 billion, spread out across all states and countless municipalities and businesses. 

Even in the face of pandemic recovery, the situation could not look any more different, with the United States welcoming a smaller portion of what had been a constantly thriving sector before the COVID-19 shockwave.

Last September, total purchases of travel- and tourism-related goods and services by international visitors amounted to $7.8 billion, compared to $11.4 billion for the same month in the pre-pandemic year of 2019, according to the National Travel and Tourism Office.

One lingering result of the pandemic is a severe backlog in the processing of U.S. visitor visas that is now delaying visits from travelers abroad. Unlike many other nations, the line to come to the United States is often far too long and comes with far too many hoops to jump through.  Millions of potential visitors must apply for visas and take appointments at American embassies or consulates. The current wait times for an appointment at consular offices stand at 641 days in Mexico City and 347 days in Rio de Janeiro, for example. 

Needless to say, this serves as a major deterrent for potential visitors. How many visitors want to deal with bureaucratic headaches for what should be a relaxing vacation?

More people likely would book a trip to America if the associated process were not so burdensome. In a survey among foreign nationals who said the United States was not a top destination for travel, over half of Mexican citizens and 48 percent of Indian respondents cited the amount of time to obtain a visa as a factor in their decision.

Not many would doubt the economic benefits that come with tourism and a general influx of visitors from abroad. Two sectors that also happen to have been hit hard by the pandemic — food service and lodging — are also the top two spending categories by international travelers. In 2019, those visitors are estimated to have spent $279 billion on food services, including restaurant/grocery and drinking places, which accounted for 25 percent of total travel spending.

Retail shopping, visiting small towns and the countryside, dining and sightseeing are all typical activities that tourists undergo. They collectively spend billions of dollars, helping to support businesses, many of which are small, family- and/or minority-owned.

In California, before the pandemic, international visitors delivered over $28 billion to local economies. In New Mexico, where Hispanic-owned companies happen to represent nearly one in five businesses, tourists from abroad spend five times more while in-country than their domestic peers.

In fact, the U.S. Travel Association projects that American businesses will lose $11.6 billion in spending in 2023 alone as a likely result of international travelers’ inability to secure visitor visas.

Adding to the frustration, this is not a universal problem. Other countries have experienced a quick rebound in international travelers while the U.S. has struggled in comparison. Last year, France welcomed over 66 million tourists from abroad, and Spain saw over 71 million. Even the relatively tiny Bahamas received over 7 million.

The Senate Foreign Relations Committee will soon hold a confirmation hearing for President Biden’s nominee for Deputy Secretary of State for Management and Resources. Hopefully, one of the topics will be the State Department’s current inability to keep up with the demand for tourist visas.

Thankfully, the solution is straightforward. The Biden administration should prioritize policies allowing more tourists to the U.S. They need to allocate more staff to clear the massive visa backlogs for visitors from many countries and streamline relevant processes to lower wait times.

Visitors from around the world, and the spending they do during their time in the United States, are a necessary and fundamental part of the economic health of our country. Facilitating tourism and related activity will help businesses across the country, in a variety of industries, gain a better bottom line, hire more workers, and make an even greater contribution to the rebound of their local economies. 

Mario H. Lopez is president of the Hispanic Leadership Fund, a public policy advocacy organization that promotes liberty, opportunity and prosperity for all Americans. Follow him on Twitter @MarioHLopez.

Tags international travel Joe Biden US economy

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