Secure, Efficient and Welcoming? Visa Policies Need to "Have It All"

Tough new security checks on visa applicants shouldn’t deter millions of lawful international travelers as long as the United States makes it clear that they are welcome here.

President Trump is making good on his campaign promise to increase border security. The latest are signs that the Trump administration is considering far-reaching “extreme vetting” steps for all international travelers to the U.S. This would be on top of new security checks on visa applicants that could result in a backlog of visa applications. We can all agree that national security is paramount. However, when complex security restrictions aren’t balanced by measures to make the process welcoming and efficient, it could deter international business and leisure travel, hurt American jobs and cost the country billions.

But it doesn’t have to be this way. As U.S. Travel has made clear, security and efficiency are not mutually exclusive—in fact, they go hand-in-hand.  The important point to remember is that the U.S. government is capable of upholding the highest security standards while giving travelers a modern, efficient visa and entry process.

For example: terror attacks in Paris and other locations in 2015 prompted some lawmakers to propose scrapping the Visa Waiver Program (VWP), which allows visa-free travel to the U.S. for pre-screened, qualified citizens. Instead, a bipartisan coalition in Congress rallied around smart security enhancements to the VWP, preserving its travel facilitation aspects and its massive economic benefits.

It goes without saying that we can and should work to facilitate travel from countries not currently part of the Visa Waiver Program. The best recent example can be found in China. Despite being our fastest-growing inbound travel market, Chinese citizens faced over 60 day-long wait times for visas in 2011. In 2012, though, once the U.S. committed to using new procedures and allocating the staffing resources needed to meet the demand for visas, visa wait times in China greatly improved.  Today, visas are processed in about two weeks in China and most parts of the world—a worthy achievement, and one that must be maintained.

Whether its through the well-known and well-run VWP or not, international travel is our No. 1 service export and the key to keeping millions of American jobs at home. Over 77.5 million international travelers visited the U.S. in 2015, half of which came from overseas (all countries excluding Canada and Mexico). These travelers spend an average of $2,390 per trip (the overseas-alone average is even higher, at $4,337 per trip). In 2016, that spending translated into an $87 billion travel trade surplus and tens of billions in tax revenue, which helped support more than 15.1 million jobs. All this to say: international travel is vital to the economic health of our country and the customer experience is important if the U.S. is to stay competitive.  Heightened security is good, but we cannot let our service standards slide as we implement those measures.

A few things need to be done to ensure that travelers are not needlessly deterred by these new security policies. First, we ask that the Trump administration consider its security and travel messaging carefully and focus on the need to be clear, precise and welcoming. Second, we need to reiterate to U.S. consular offices the importance of attracting lawful business and leisure visitors, and of the vital facilitation portion of their mission. Finally, we should work to implement policies that balance any additional requirement on travelers with clear communication standards regarding new rules and additional resources where needed.

We are not alone in our request. This message is echoed by key lawmakers, including Rep. Michael McCaul (R-TX), the top Republican on the House Homeland Security Committee, who recently said that the administration must balance the new visa restrictions with a message of welcome and tolerance. We couldn’t agree more.

Stronger security coupled with a welcoming first impression of America sends the message that our country is open for business. We have to get this right—too much is at stake, economically and diplomatically, to do otherwise.