Come and Visit! (Bring Money.)

In my last post on WCIT’s policy priorities – cleverly titled, as always – I mentioned that today’s post would be focused on visa reform. No, not credit cards…I’m talking about entry visas into the United States from places like China, India and Brazil. This is a huge issue for international tourism specifically – and international business generally – for reasons that, well, I’m about to tell you about.

The great news (for me) is that writing this post is going to be easy…and I love easily written blog posts…because two very exciting things happened in the past week: 1) I had a great meeting with the US Travel Association when I was in DC and 2) the Seattle Convention & Visitors Bureau published an op-ed in the Seattle Times on this topic.

So now all I have to do is quote those folks and “presto!”: another great State of Trade blog post.

In all seriousness, the issue is so basic as to almost be amazing: if people want to come here to do business and/or spend money, then we should absolutely let them (as long as they’re not terrorists or other ill-intentioned folks). But we don’t, at least not easily: the U.S. visa application process can take as long as 145 days in Brazil and 120 days in China, two of the fastest growing markets for outbound overseas travel. I love this image from the US Travel Association’s report on this topic that shows just how complicated it can be:

And wait until I show you the numbers. The world travel market grew by 60 million annual travelers between 2000 and 2010, yet – in 2010 – the United States welcomed the same number of travelers as it did in 2000. If we had simply kept our fair share of that growth, our country would have welcomed 78 million more visitors, generating $606 billion in spending and 467,000 jobs. Put another way, if we can get back to our historic share of the travel market (to 17% from 12% now) we would boost “exports” (international visitors are considered exports) by $390 billion over 10 years.

As Tom and Darrell state in their op-ed, this is a particularly important issue for the Washington tourism industry, which already employs 143,800 people and generates $4.3 billion in earnings, visitor spending of $15.2 billion, and $1 billion in state and local tax revenues. Imagine the benefit to our state if it were easier for folks from Brazil, India and China to visit here; US Department of Commerce data projects a 38% increase in Brazilian long-haul travel in the next decade, an 110% increase in Indian long-haul travel and a 151% (!!) increase in Chinese long-haul travel.

Of course, this is not only a loss for our state’s tourism industry, but it also significantly impedes the ability of international businesses to, well, do their business. Imagine Boeing wanting to deliver a plane to a customer from India, but that customer’s executives having to wait up to six months to get their visas in order to come here and pick it up. Or a Seattle architecture firm with Chinese employees who can’t come to the head office without significant delay and hardship. Now stop imagining, because those are two real-world examples that I’ve heard about just in the last week.

This issue is a no-brainer for the Washington Council on International Trade, because our main goal is to ensure that policy facilitates free flows of trade and here is a very straightforward example of that kind of barrier. We’ll be working very closely with the US Travel Association, the Seattle Convention & Visitors Bureau and others to make sure that commonsense reforms are enacted. And that’s why it’s in a blog post on one of WCIT’s policy priorities.

Next blog post in our policy priorities series? “An X-Box is Not a Missile Control System”, an exploration of export controls reform.

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