Berkley promotes visa waivers to boost tourism

U.S. Rep. Shelley Berkley on Monday stood beside Las Vegas Mayor Carolyn Goodman and a gaming executive to promote a House bill to let more international tourists visit the United States without visas, which could boost Southern Nevada’s economy and create jobs.

Six months ago, U.S. Rep. Joe Heck was flanked by the same two leaders as he used the backdrop of the "Welcome to Fabulous Las Vegas" sign to pitch his own legislation to speed U.S. visa processing to draw more free-spending international tourists.

Berkley, a Democrat, signed on to Republican Heck’s bill. She and Heck also are among three dozen co-sponsors of the separate visa waiver bill she touted on Monday.

"Anything we can do to get people back to work is important," Berkley said, noting visitors fuel Nevada’s economy. "Tourism is our No. 1 industry, and we need to expand our tourism base."

While Nevada Democrats and Republicans are at odds on a host of issues, voters are seeing an election-year bounty of dueling legislation written or backed by candidates seeking support at the ballot box. The bills are largely aimed at energizing the recovering economy, dealing with the housing crisis or creating jobs as the state still suffers the nation’s highest unemployment rate at 12.7 percent.

U.S. Sen. Dean Heller, R-Nev., has cosponsored a Senate bill to speed up visa processing as proposed by Heck in the House. Heller also is reviewing legislation to expand the visa waiver program for travelers as backed by Berkley and the Las Vegas leaders, his office representative said Monday.

Berkley, who is running for the Senate against Heller, rarely lets an opportunity go by to contrast herself and her GOP opponent, but on Monday she withheld her critical fire.

"When it comes to issues that are important to the state of Nevada, campaigns should always be set aside," Berkley said at a news conference at the Cashman Center .

Goodman and Marybel Batjer, vice president of public policy and communications at Caesars Entertainment Group, both said easing visa rules should be a bipartisan effort for Nevada. They praised Berkley on Monday as they did Heck when he introduced his visa bill last September.

Goodman said the competition among countries for international tourists is intense. She said the United States must make it easier for friendly foreigners to travel here, including waiving visa fees and requirements when there is no security risk.

"It is important we dangle every piece of fruit we can to tourists considering coming here," Goodman said, calling strict visa requirements and waiting lists "stumbling blocks."

Now, people from 36 countries don’t need a visa to visit the United States for up to 90 days. Nearly 18 million visitors used the visa waiver program in 2010, Berkley’s office said.

The proposed House legislation would allow the Department of Homeland Security to designate new countries to participate in the visa waiver program. Berkley called Poland a good candidate as well as Brazil, which has a growing class of big spenders. Batjer noted Southern Nevada also relies heavily on Chinese tourism, and easing visa rules for China would help business here, too.

The average international traveler spends more than $1,000 per stay of at least four days while the average domestic tourist in Las Vegas spends $645 per visit of three days.

National Republicans criticized Berkley for promoting the visa bill written by U.S. Rep. Mike Quigley, D-Ill., accusing her of trying to take credit for the measure introduced on Jan. 31

"At a time when public confidence in Washington is already at an all-time low, Nevadans should consider whether they want another liberal Harry Reid protégé or a common-sense reformer like Dean Heller representing their views and values in the U.S. Senate," said Brian Walsh, communications director for the National Republican Senatorial Committee.

Eric Koch, a spokesman for Berkley’s campaign, said she signed onto the Quigley legislation in early February, just days after its introduction, and is a longtime proponent of easing visa rules.

"I’m not sure where the fire is," Koch said. "Shelley Berkley is clearly a co-sponsor of this important job creating legislation. It’s unfortunate that out-of-state D.C. Republicans would try to turn expanding tourism — the life blood for Nevada’s economy — into a partisan football."

Contact Laura Myers at or 702-387-2919. Follow @lmyerslvrj on Twitter.

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