Revamp of U.S. visa rules could mean a windfall

  • Article by: JIM SPENCER , Star Tribune
  • Updated: October 5, 2011 - 11:55 PM

Klobuchar cites drag on tourism in sponsoring bill to ease process.

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Sen. Amy Klobuchar

Photo: David Joles, Star Tribune

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WASHINGTON - The United States has lost an estimated $606 billion in economic activity over the past decade because its visa process is too cumbersome for millions of foreign travelers.

Noting the drag on U.S. tourism, Democrat Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota and a Republican colleague are striving to streamline the complicated visa protocol that has emerged since the Sept. 11 attacks. Klobuchar and Sen. Roy Blunt of Missouri proposed a bill this week that would use fees paid by incoming foreign visitors to bolster State Department ranks and speed the issuing of travel visas.

"Our share of foreign tourism has declined by 16 percent [since Sept. 11, 2001]," said Klobuchar, who co-chairs the Senate's tourism caucus with Blunt. "These people went to France. They went to England."

Obtaining a U.S. visa currently requires multilayered review that can take weeks to complete and requires would-be foreign tourists to present themselves for personal interviews with State Department screeners. As a result, some people must travel hundreds of miles -- just to see if they qualify to visit the United States.

Many would-be visitors give up or don't bother trying, according to the U.S. Travel Association, which estimates that 78 million foreign visits have been lost since 2001.

In Minnesota, tourism officials say visa delays have cost the state thousands of tourists a year from two potentially lucrative sources of new visitors -- China and Brazil.

"We know there is interest in coming to Minnesota from those two markets," said Cheryl Offerman, international marketing manager at Explore Minnesota, the state's tourism agency. "When the wait for a visa is so long, we are losing business."

Travelers from China must journey to a U.S. Embassy or consular office in China, a trek that can take several days and be too expensive for many, given the country's enormous size, said Doug Killian, director of tourism at the Mall of America. "Applicants often wait in line and have to return the next day if the office closes for the day.

The Klobuchar-Blunt bill would allow the State Department to add new employees to cut the time it takes to conduct the review process. In addition, the proposal would give the State Department flexibility to extend its annual visa renewal window in certain circumstances. This would allow foreign visitors who have previously gone through the visa application process to renew their visas without going through another in-person interview.

Officials at the Mall of America, the state's most popular tourist attraction, say foreign visitors spend roughly 2 1/2 times as much as domestic shoppers, on average. The mall estimates that 2.73 million of its 42 million annual visitors are from international locations.

The top five international markets are Canada, the United Kingdom, Japan, Germany and Nordic countries (Norway, Sweden, Denmark, Finland and Iceland).

"We are seeing an increase, particularly from China, over the past few years as their economy continues to expand," said Dan Jasper, the mall's vice president of public relations.

"We work closely with tour operators to promote travel from China and earlier this summer [we] hosted a special 'Experience China' event."

The visa complications for visiting the United States extend beyond leisure travel, affecting medical visits, among other things, Klobuchar said. "I've heard it from the Mayo Clinic that they can't get patients in," she said, adding that some businesses have trouble getting foreign workers approved to visit the United States for conventions or training.

Jim Spencer • 202-408-2752

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