Travel group pushes for visa changes

11/11/11 10:33 AM EST

The American travel industry is dramatically stepping up its political efforts in the nation’s capital in hopes of making it easier for international business travelers to visit the United States.

In particular, the group is trying to get Congress to pass legislation that would lead to innovations in the travel visa-granting process: introducing video-conferencing to conduct visa interviews in key markets; opening up additional visa offices in key markets like Brazil, China and India; hiring new consular officers who are not in the Foreign Service but focus only on processing travel visas; and waiving in-person interviews for previously vetted applicants.

None of these changes would cost taxpayers a dime, the association says, noting that visa staffers charge fees for processing and thus pay for themselves. Though there are concerns about whether these changes could affect American security, the industry is trying to emphasize there is no trade-off between security and efficiency.

“There’s no security benefit to America, having a 95 day-wait for people to get a visa interview in Brazil,” quipped U.S. Travel Association Executive Vice-President Geoff Freeman.

The association has upped its advocacy spending more than twelve-fold in the last five years, from $400,000 to $5 million a year and has a unique advantage in its efforts to influence the political discourse.

“The travel industry has a presence in every congressional district in the country. So when we turn the grassroots on, people hear about it, and that gives us a core base to work from that many other industries would give their right arms for,” Freeman told POLITICO.

“Two years ago, we didn’t have a PAC. We started a PAC, went from zero to $400,000 in a short amount of time, led by Steve Joyce, CEO of Choice Hotels, who has become our chairman and single-handedly built the PAC,” he added.

Front and center for the travel industry is the issue of visa policy – and attracting the lucrative business travelers that come with a more efficient visa process. International businesses really pulled back during the recession, Freeman said, but people realized that video teleconferencing and phone calls were no substitute for in-person pitches and face-to-face networking. The key, then, is to get the government to allow business travelers to get permission to enter the United States more easily.

While the industry is unified behind visa reform, the association does suffer from internal tensions from time to time.

Unlike “vertical” associations that only advocate for hotels or only for car rental companies, the U.S. Travel Association has to promote a whole swath of the wider industry. This can lead to dissention over things like local taxes, which hotels and car rental companies have to collect, but which also fund local marketing programs and convention centers.

But by and large, the unity in the industry – illustrated by the huge increase in funds for joint advocacy – is a function of the post 9/11 security situation that the players were confronted with.

Freeman said “9/11 was a real turning point in our industry, and it took a few years for people to figure out what it meant.”

“There were some people who wanted to take the easy way out, they wanted to say that security and efficiency were mutually exclusive – if that’s the attitude that our nation adopts, the travel industry dies,” he added.

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