WASHINGTON – John Edman is looking for a balance between national security and international tourism.
Edman, executive director of Explore Minnesota, understands why terrorist attacks have prompted Congress to make it harder for foreigners to come to the United States.
But he also grasps the importance of international visitors to the state's massive tourist economy.
So Edman approaches new restrictions in the country's visa-waiver program like many leaders in the tourist industry.
The restrictions must be addressed because they cannot be reversed.
"International travel is important to Minnesota," Edman told the Star Tribune. "The visa-waiver program has helped the free flow of travel."
The program once let citizens of 38 European and Pacific Rim nations travel to the U. S. for up to 90 days without visas. Now, a bill passed by the U.S. House and adopted by the Senate makes residents of those countries obtain travel visas if they visited Syria, Iran, Iraq or the Sudan in the past five years. In addition, information sharing for visa-free travel will intensify.
"That's the reality," Edman said. "There are going to be more processes to come here."
Tourism officials are clearly concerned that travel restrictions on foreigners could have an economic impact statewide and nationally. Bloomington's Mall of America alone attracts 3 million to 4 million foreign visitors a year. Mall officials say at least 45 percent come from countries in the visa-waiver program.
"All the feedback we get for the visa-waiver program is very positive," said Doug Killian, the mall's senior director of international tourism. "Travelers and travel operators are very confident in the current security efforts."
A visa waiver involves screening and approval from a government-run Electronic System for Travel Authorization and possession of a valid passport implanted with a fraud prevention computer chip. A visa waiver now costs $14. The more extensive screening and interview process for a regular visa is time-consuming and costs $160. Some who must travel to Syria, Iraq, Iran or the Sudan for family or business matters have complained.
"Every time there's an incident, it's like the visa-waiver program is kind of a scapegoat," said Bill Deef, vice president of international relations at Meet Minneapolis Convention & Visitors Association.
The U.S. Travel Association, a national advocacy group that represents 11 Minnesota organizations, including Mall of America, supported the recent Congressional action but warned "the U.S. could pay a steep price for missteps" in amending the visa-waiver program. It opposes a bill in the Senate. That bill only forces people in visa-waiver countries to get visas if they have traveled to Syria and Iraq in the past five years. But it requires everyone else who gets a visa waiver to submit fingerprint information for screening before coming to America.
The extra biometric screening is a time-consuming process that is redundant because it also takes place after foreign travelers arrive in the U.S., said Jonathan Grella, the travel association's executive vice president for public affairs.
Grella said the current visa-waiver program applies multiple security checks, including terror-watch lists. But the program, he conceded, is widely misunderstood.
"We've spent gobs of money trying to educate legislators," Grella said. "This is the best program with the worst name. It sounds like an overzealous third-base coach waiving in anybody rounding the bases. Nothing could be further from the truth."
Still, Democratic Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota, who leads that body's tourism caucus, supports the Senate bill that requires gathering more front-end biometrics such as fingerprints for anyone who wants a visa waiver. Although fingerprint checks did not make it into the omnibus budget package that passed last week, they "could be coming out of a bigger effort to look at biometrics next year," Klobuchar said.
"My support of the visa-waiver program has always been premised on appropriate vetting," Klobuchar said. "I'm very strongly supportive of tourism, but at the same time, the number one priority of government is to keep people safe."
In a news release, the travel association said it expects 14 million first-time visitors to enter the country in the next five years under the visa-waiver program.
"If even one in 10 [visa-waiver] travelers stays away," the association noted, "the harm would amount to $5.4 billion in direct spending."
Deef says Minnesota profits heavily from nonstop flights from countries in the visa-waiver program. In summer 2016, 10 nonstop flights a week will arrive at Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport from Paris, Amsterdam, London, Frankfurt, Reykjavik, Tokyo and Rome. Besides tourists who spend, on average, three to five times what domestic tourists do, the Fortune 500 companies based in Minnesota draw many foreign business travelers, Deef said.
Grella says better information sharing between countries that participate in the visa-waiver program should be a major priority along with fraud-proof passports.
But, he added, "if we treat 38 countries who are our close allies like total strangers, we invite retaliation."
The prospect of delays in processing loom each time Congress reacts to terrorism.
"We're hosting the Ryder Cup [international golf tournament] next year," Deef said. "We want people to get here without a lot of problems."
If the new rules mean more hoops to jump through or more expense and longer wait times to get approval to visit, the travel industry's challenge will be to convince foreigners the U.S. still welcomes them, Edman and Deef emphasized.
Edman sits on the board of Brand USA, a public-private organization created by the federal Travel Promotion Act. Brand USA markets America to the rest of the world. Travel restrictions arising from fear of terrorism complicate that mission. As a result, Edman said, the country must multiply efforts to get a single message out to international business people and tourists:
"We want you here."