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Lessons for the U.S. From the World Travel and Tourism Council

As we near the 10th anniversary of 9/11, what lessons have we learned about barriers of entry for business travelers, both here and abroad, and the devastating economic impact of those barriers?

Recently, when I arrived in Buenos Aires, I was assessed a surprising $131 fee just to enter the country. When i asked why that excessive amount, the answer was swift and angry from the customs officer: "Because that's what your country charges us."

As business travelers rush to embrace the exploding economies of the BRIC countries (Brazil, Russia, India, and China), it's surprising to realize that each of those countries requires a visa from U.S. business travelers, and those visas can sometimes take many days, even weeks to get.

Is this the way to do business?

"As a nation, we're putting up a 'keep out' sign," Roger Dow, the president and CEO of the US Travel Association told me during a meeting of the World Travel and Tourism Council summit earlier this week in Las Vegas.

During the annual event, Department of Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano, Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood and Senior Presidential Advisor Valerie Jarrett all addressed the group.

Without exception, the delegates--many of whom are Fortune 500 CEOs of America's biggest travel corporations, ranging from Marriott to Hertz to American Express, all expressed the same frustration with America's immigration and entrance policies post 9/11.

"It's an antiquated visa process," said Dow, "that often drives international travelers to other countries. We are imposing unnecessary barriers on international visitors, and that inhibits our economic growth. And if we institute a smarter visa policy, we can create 1.3 million jobs."

I heard countless horror stories of business travelers being unable to get visas to come to the U.S., which, of course, translated into lost opportunities for our own business travelers wanting to go overseas.

One of the problems is that U.S. consular offices overseas are understaffed, and have not kept up with market demands. As a result, some foreign business travelers have waited more than 100 days just to schedule a 3-minute interview to be approved for a visa.

In the process, it would serve to mitigate, perhaps even eliminate negative reciprocity on the part of foreign governments towards U. business travelers.

And here's the real problem: by failing to keep pace with the growth in global long-haul international travel in the last 10 years, the U.S. lost the opportunity to welcome about 78 million more visitors and generate $606 billion in direct and downstream spending.

One of the solutions is to expand the visa waiver program. Currently, about 39 countries qualify for this. And recently, to give you an idea of how powerful this waiver can be, when South Korea was added to the list, its overseas business travel jumped 40 percent.

The numbers speak loud and clear. For incoming business travelers to trade shows and conventions, the numbers are shouting: The average spending by an international business traveler attending a trade show is $13,600.

So, the take away from the WTTC meeting, administration officials might -- just might -- start embracing the real economic impact of the post 9/11 travel environment, and work with the private sector to ease visa restrictions. And in the process, jump start business travel both from and to the U.S.

Do you think the U.S. has become too strict in its entrance policies since 9/11?


Photo credit: World Travel and Tourism Council
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