Visa wait times drop, but issues linger

Even with decreased visa wait times and an increasing number of countries being added to the Visa Waiver Program, the U.S. still has its share of issues welcoming international travelers.

A few years ago, wait times just to get an interview appointment to apply for a visa could stretch out to 120 days for persons who wanted to come to the U.S. By increasing staffing in many of the areas most affected — including China and Brazil — many of those waits have been cut significantly. In Bangkok, citizens can get an interview in 15 days. If you live in Amsterdam, there’s a 23-day delay, and Buenos Aires residents only have to wait two days.

“Facilitating travel to the United States from legitimate visitors is one of our highest priorities,” Ed Ramotowski, deputy assistant secretary at the U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of Consular Affairs, said.

In fiscal year 2012, the Department of State issued almost 9 million visas worldwide, signifying almost a 19 percent increase globally. In China and Brazil, the demand increased 34 percent.

Ramotowski was in Las Vegas this week for the U.S. Travel Association’s trade show, IPW.

“There’s nothing comparable to coming to the United States, meeting Americans, seeing this country with your own eyes to build friends and allies for us around the world. It’s the gift that keeps on giving. And when you also consider how much it means to our economy, particularly in regions such as Las Vegas, it’s a win-win situation,” he said Wednesday.

The international travel industry generates over $168 billion in economic activity for the U.S. each year, and overseas visitors spend an average of $4,500 per trip. In 2012, 17 percent of the 39.7 million visitors who came to Las Vegas hailed from other countries. The Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority has a goal to increase that to 30 percent by 2022.

Even though visa wait times have decreased, there are still issues at U.S. borders. With the influx of travelers has come increased wait times at borders and customs.

“Homeland Security has a problem in that border demand is increasing but the number of officers they have available to process travelers has been stable. Because of sequestration and budget challenges, they’re not able to increase their staff,” Ramotowski said.

With sequestration there are restrictions on overtime, too, so their ability to deal with increasing numbers is limited.

Thus far in June, the longest wait for customs at McCarran International Airport was 67 minutes. The highest average wait is 34 minutes. As for the longest wait at a border on Wednesday, the Niagra Falls crossing took 55 minutes. Many crossings had no wait at all, but still others took about 20 minutes to get travelers through Wednesday.

And while still working on entry issues, the government’s Visa Waiver Program continues to prove fruitful.

Taiwan joined in November 2012, making it the newest country added. Most of Europe is in the program, and many major Asian countries including Japan, Singapore, Australia and New Zealand.

The Secretary of State recently nominated Chile for inclusion, which would enable Chilean nationals to enter the U.S. visa-free. If added, Chile would join 37 other nations in the program that allows citizens of participating countries to travel to the U.S. visa free for stays of up to 90 days for business or leisure.

When countries are added to the program, “It’s like opening up a faucet of people who want to come here,” Roger Dow, president and CEO of the U.S. Travel Association, said.

Of Chile, Ramotowski said, “We’re confident they’ll make the changes they need to make to join.”

The Visa Waiver requirements are set by law. In the Chilean case, the country needs to switch to using an electronic chip in their passport, which they plan to do in September.

“That’s the last major hurdle they would have, then the (Department of Homeland Security) team can go out there and look at the overall security situation,” Ramotowski said.

Contact reporter Laura Carroll at lcarroll@reviewjournal.com or 702-380-4588. Follow @lscvegas on Twitter.